You may have heard of the phrase the "gig economy," a term used to refer to jobs that are typically more short-term and paid based on the amount of work you do, as opposed to traditional jobs that pay a flat hourly rate. Uber and Lyft drivers, restaurant delivery workers, and Instacart or Shipt grocery shoppers primarily operate this way. In the online world, sites like Fiverr and Upwork make it easy for business owners to hire temporary help for specific tasks, or to sell freelance services to others on a per-project basis.
The gig economy offers flexibility for workers because they can choose the amount they want to work as well as the hours they wish to do their assigned tasks. Conversely, some believe that the rise of contract labor is resulting in people working harder for less pay and fewer benefits compared with traditional employment. The advantages and pitfalls of contract employment in the gig economy are largely outside of the scope of AccessWorld, but it is worth focusing on the accessibility of these online services for those who wish to be a part of the gig economy as a buyer or seller.
The Basics of Online Freelance
Online freelance marketplaces connect freelance professionals who offer services (sellers) to businesses and individuals looking for that service (buyers). Typically, this arrangement is best suited for standalone projects, though sometimes longer-term relationships are formed. The types of projects range in scope and complexity from logo or business card design to advanced programming and application development. Fiverr and Upwork are two of the most popular sites for connecting freelancers and hirers. I'll explore both the buying and selling sides of both of these services below.
Buying on Fiverr
Fiverr, with two Rs, gets its name from its original business model, where every service on their platform was available for just five bucks. Over time, the company realized the limits of this approach, and now five dollars is the starting price for available services, with many listings priced much higher. On Fiverr, sellers list the specific services they offer with a tagline, such as "I will design your company Facebook cover photo", "I will record an intro for your podcast," or "I will translate 100 words from Spanish to English." Selecting the specific service shows you a description from the seller, their history on Fiverr, including how many gigs they have completed, their typical response time, and customer ratings and reviews for the gig. Sellers are generally not vetted for gigs they post, so prior reviews, sample work, and price are the primary ways buyers choose among sellers. You can also send prospective sellers questions before choosing them for your project.
Sellers can also choose to offer gig extras, which are enhanced services to complement an existing gig. Someone offering to create an intro for a podcast may include things like background music, sound effects, or multiple sound formats as available extras. To purchase a gig, select the checkboxes for extra services you want to include if any, and then select the Buy button, which should update to show the total price for the gig, not including fees.
Once you have purchased a gig, you will usually be asked for detailed information from the seller so they can complete the work. This might be a script for an audio voiceover, or design ideas for a logo. All messaging between buyers and sellers is done on the platform, and you will receive a notification when they have completed the gig. Once a gig is complete, you will have a chance to approve their work or reject it and request changes, and also rate the seller on their performance.
I've personally used Fiverr for several company projects, and have always received the work I was promised. The quality has ranged from decent to amazing, with several sellers providing exemplary service. I often find it best to give someone a smaller project first to get a sense of the quality of their work, and then buy more if I am satisfied.
On the buyer side, most features are accessible to screen reader users, though there is the occasional hiccup. It's often difficult to locate links to sample work for a seller, because they are often displayed as graphical links without alt text. Similarly, the rating system presents itself as several unlabeled buttons, turning ratings into a bit of a guessing game. For the most part, Fiverr's services for buyers can be accessed by advanced screen reader users. iOS and Android apps are also available if you wish to work from your mobile device. We'll talk about selling your services on Fiverr later in this article.
Buying on Upwork
Upwork approaches the freelancer relationship a bit differently. The process for buyers starts by creating a job listing, which is done in a similar fashion to posting a job on a regular employment website. After giving a title and description, you are asked several questions to help hone in on possible candidates. These include the length of the job, whether you prefer to pay hourly or a fixed cost, and the timeline for completion of the work. You will also choose a category and subcategory, along with the experience level you'd like applicants to have. You can ask for a cover letter, or create specific questions that the applicant must answer when applying. Where Fiverr focuses on single tasks, Upwork allows you to hire someone for a longer or ongoing project. For instance, if you wanted to find someone to provide audio transcripts for a podcast, or customer service via email, these are jobs that could be posted on Upwork. Categories range from accounting and marketing to programming and human resources. Posting a job on Upwork is free. Upwork takes a cut of the freelancer's revenue for jobs completed through its platform.
Once you complete the job-posting wizard, your job will be visible to available candidates. You can then choose to search through available users who match your requirements and specifically invite them to apply to your job (recommended), or wait for applicants to come to you. Upwork gives more flexibility than Fiverr for both the jobseeker and client and lets you come to a mutual agreement on how the job or jobs will be completed. If there is ever a dispute in payment, Upwork will, upon request, jump in to help resolve the disagreement.
I have less experience with Upwork than I do with Fiverr, but have hired through the platform, and was satisfied with the work that was produced. I was less satisfied however, with the accessibility of Upwork's job posting wizard. Several of the screens in the wizard included choices, such as hourly vs. flat rate, which did not give any indication of which option was selected while testing with the latest version of Google Chrome and NVDA. The only workaround currently would be to complete the job posting and then look at the resulting page to see if the desired options were actually selected. There does appear to be some pages on the website which have received some level of accessibility support, and Upwork has an accessibility page on its site that allows users to request accommodations or submit accessibility feedback. So, while Upwork appears to be aware of their obligation to provide an accessible interface, there are still areas that come up short. The good news is that once you have connected with someone, you can communicate on your platform of choice, such as email, Zoom, or WhatsApp.
The Other Side of Freelance: Making Money
To this point, we've focused on using freelance websites to locate people and services to benefit your business. But there is potentially a gold mine of opportunity for people who are blind and visually impaired who wish to offer freelance services. Consider some of the benefits of freelancing on Fiverr, Upwork, or another similar service. Most jobs can be performed from home or a home office. You can generally set your own hours or work schedule. You can choose your preferred tools for completing the work. That's the good news. The less positive news is that it will likely take some effort to navigate and use the seller interfaces of Fiverr or Upwork. So not only do you need to focus on building your brand and service offerings, you also need to concern yourself with getting around the various accessibility pitfalls that these sites currently present.
As an example, I recently looked at the screen for posting a job on Fiverr in the voiceover category. While the basics of the form were easy to fill out, I encountered a string of options with no discernable checkboxes for input. So, when attempting to select a choice like Language, Age Range, or Gender, often the website would not make it clear on which option was selected. Yes, there is likely a workaround for a small issue like this, but it can provide a potential freelancer a great amount of discouragement when something as simple as posting your first job needs to be completed by trial and error or calling on a visual interpreter. I should add that Fiverr did not appear to have any particular page on its website about the accessibility of its service.
Aira does offer free minutes for small business tasks. Sponsored by Intuit, it can be used for tasks up to 30 minutes in length in a variety of categories. But this service is limited to business owners and not available to employees or others who may wish to post jobs.
There is a lot of potential for increased employment among people with visual impairments on these services. A quick sampling of available jobs included postings for transcriptionists, audio producers, website developers, language tutors, and accessibility testers. Users should not need to call on a third-party to complete their profile or post a job on these services. The irony that Fiverr and Upwork could use their own platforms to hire accessibility professionals to improve their website experience is not lost on this writer.
With all of that being said, if you are willing to put up with some frustrations, especially during the setup process, Upwork and Fiverr can provide a means for earning additional spending money, or even your primary income.
As the gig economy expands, more work will be done on a contract basis, with ultra-specialized workers performing similar jobs for multiple companies, or frequently moving from one company to another. For Fiverr and Upwork, it will take some much-needed accessibility improvements to their websites to make the entire experience pleasant and effective for screen reader users. Too often, we focus on the user-facing services of a website, or those that are intended for buyers. But it's just as important to recognize that people who are blind or visually impaired also wish to contribute to the selling and business side of the equation. All parts of these tools, whether intended for business owners or service providers, should be universally accessible. This will break down yet another artificial barrier preventing employment for people who are blind. We hope these and other sites will take accessibility seriously as they continue to develop their services.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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