Feature Articles

“Invisible" Disabilities in the Workplace

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Of all employees with a disability, 62% have an invisible condition.

In the past, we’ve discussed disabilities like deafness/hard-of-hearing, blindness/low vision, and certain physical disabilities. These disabilities can be obvious to others because they are often accompanied by equipment (canes, wheelchairs, service animals, prosthetics, hearing aids, etc.) or because they have an immediately apparent effect on how the person navigates the world or interacts with others, such as when a deaf person lets you know they cannot hear you when you try to speak to them.

However, there are disabilities and conditions that are far less apparent to an outside observer, yet may still require an accommodation at work. In fact, 96% of people with chronic medical conditions show no outward sign of their illness that is obvious to most people, and many of those conditions can result in a disability. These are often referred to as “invisible disabilities”, an umbrella term used to refer to any condition that may not be readily apparent to others but, as the Department of Labor’s definition of disability states, is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more ‘major life activities.’” This can include conditions like fibromyalgia or...

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More on Safety Equipment for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Employees

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Four alert lights, each a different color. Such lights could indicate steps in a process.

The AccessATE and DeafTEC tip sheet on Workplace Accommodations and Safety for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Employees went over some general ideas regarding keeping deaf and hard-of-hearing (HH) workers safe on the job. Here, we will further discuss those measures, including specific equipment employers might choose.

Many people may be unaware that deaf/HH employees still require hearing protection in noisy work environments. In accordance with OSHA, MSHA, and FRA, employers must provide protection in work environments that exceed 90 A-weighted decibels, or dBA, while workers with documented hearing loss should be provided protection if noise levels exceed 85 dBA. There is a misconception that a deaf/HH person’s hearing is inherently protected by being impaired, or that hearing aids provide noise protection, but a switched-off hearing aid does not an earplug make! Remaining hearing can still be lost, and/or damage can be done or further accumulated. Hearing protection devices (HPDs), such as earmuffs, must still be provided to deaf/HH employees. Note that not all HPDs are suitable for, or compatible with, all hearing aids – the best options will vary by case, and may include devices...

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Best Practices for Alternate Text

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A person on a laptop codes in alt text for a photo of a tree

In our most recent tip sheet from AccessATE and DeafTEC, we go over various tips for improving workplace communication for blind and low vision employees. The tip sheet mentions adding descriptive or alternative text for photos, charts, and graphs, which we’ve also touched on in a previous tip sheet and blog post. Here, we’ll dive into more detail about best practices for crafting and adding alternative (alt) text, both for electronic documents and online.

Tip Sheet: Workplace Communication for Blind & Low Vision Employees

Alt text, sometimes called alternate text, descriptive text, or alternative text, is text that supplements an element, such as an image, or substitutes for it if it cannot be rendered. It’s what screen readers will use to convey information about an image to a blind/low vision user. The webpage version of this is the HTML “alt” attribute, which you have likely encountered before without realizing it, as the use of alt attribute has become increasingly common in coding. One does not always need to know how to code to use it, as many programs and webpages have interfaces that allow you to set alt attribute values by simply filling out a text field. It’s...

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Assistive Technologies for Blind & Low Vision Employees

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A blind worker listens to a speech synthesizer on her laptop via headphones

In our recent tip sheet from AccessATE and DeafTEC, we discussed accommodation and safety recommendations for employees who are blind or have low vision. The tip sheet briefly mentions that possible accommodations for blind/low vision workers are assistive technologies. Here, we’ll dive further into what some of those options are, and how they might be used.

Tip Sheet: Workplace Accommodations & Safety for Blind & Low Vision Employees

Many people are at least somewhat familiar with service dogs and canes for blind/low vision people, both of which are a type of mobility aid. Service dogs are trained to assist with specific tasks, such as guidance, locating and obtaining objects, alerting to obstacles and emergencies, and more. Service dogs are allowed anywhere the public is allowed, in accordance with the ADA. Some blind/low vision people learn to use a cane, which they tap or sweep along the ground in front of them to identify information like distance, texture, size, obstacles, and more. If a blind/low vision employee uses a cane, coworkers should be aware that the employee will need a little extra space around them to best utilize it. Another type of mobility aid is ...

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Video Captioning for Accessibility

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A video with closed captioning

The latest tip sheet from AccessATE and DeafTEC goes over accommodations and recommended safety measures for deaf and hard-of-hearing (HH) employees. A common and simple accommodation for deaf/HH people is video captioning, which we’ve touched on before in the Creating Accessible Videos tip sheet from AccessATE and NCAM. Here we’ll go into further detail about video captioning, and how you can integrate it into your workflow to make your videos more accessible.

Tip Sheet: Workplace Accommodations and Safety for Deaf & Hard-of-Hearing Employees

First, let’s establish what we mean by video “captioning”. It’s easy to mix up captions and subtitles, but the two are distinct from one another in a few ways. Subtitles are text that reflect what’s being spoken, sometimes translated from other languages – this is what you see if you watch a foreign film. Subtitles also include information about additional noises within the video, such as music, background noises, etc – if you’ve ever been watching a film or TV show and seen text like [dramatic music] or [dog barks], you’ve been looking at subtitles! Captions, on the other hand, only include text that’s being spoken, in the language in...

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COVID-Related Workplace Challenges & Solutions for Deaf/HH Employees

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Two deaf women chat via video call

In the latest tip sheet from AccessATE and DeafTEC, we covered workplace communication recommendations, expectations, and standards for deaf and hard-of-hearing (HH) employees. Many of us have experienced significant changes to our jobs and workplaces because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of those changes have been difficult, but especially so for employees with disabilities. Here, we will discuss some COVID-related workplace obstacles faced by deaf/HH employees in particular, and some potential solutions to those problems.

Tip Sheet: Workplace Communication for Deaf & Hard-of-Hearing Employees

A common change to the workplace, and to everyday life, brought by COVID-19 is wearing face masks when in public. Masks help prevent the spread of the virus, but unfortunately, they can also add challenges for deaf/HH people. Masks obscure the face, creating a significant communication barrier. A clear view of the face is important not only for deaf/HH people who lipread (which not all can or do), but also for those who use sign language. Sign language can lean heavily on facial expressions expression and context, and many signs are made in relation to specific spots on the face;...

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Person-First vs. Identity-First Language

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In our most recent tip sheet from AccessATE and DeafTEC, we discussed communication and safety in the workplace for employees with disabilities. Within the communication section of that tip sheet, the concept of “person-first” language was mentioned a few times. There are two general models when describing a person with a disability: person-first and identity-first language. Both are valid, and ultimately up to the individual with the disability. Remember, whenever you’re unsure what to say, it’s best to ask. Here, we’ll dive into each language model, and the importance of asking.

Tip Sheet: Workplace Communication & Safety for Physical Disabilities

Person-first language is defined as a linguistic practice that puts a person before a diagnosis, describing what a person “has” rather than asserting what a person “is”. This avoids using labels or adjective to define someone, e.g., “person with diabetes” instead of “a diabetic person”. Person-first language aims to separate a trait – such as a disability – from the person, as putting the descriptor first can reinforce a sense of inherent inferiority to people without disabilities, and/or a sense of permanence, which is not always...

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Adapting the Workplace for Physical Disabilities

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A person in a wheelchair uses an assistive technology device

Many apparent and non-apparent disabilities can impact mobility. Disabilities like loss of limb, paralysis, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and many more can affect mobility and make it difficult to use some technologies in the workplace. However, as the tip sheet from AccessATE and DeafTEC discusses, this does not mean that people with these disabilities cannot do the same work at the same quality as employees without disabilities. Like all employees, those with physical disabilities just need the right tools – let’s dive deeper into some specific accommodations that enable operation of technology!

Tip Sheet: Workplace Accommodations for Physical Disabilities

Some of the simplest options for accommodating employees with physical disabilities are related to keyboards and computer mice. A very common iteration of this is keyboard-only navigation, which is a straightforward alternative for those whose disability makes it difficult to use a mouse. Keyboard-only navigation is compatible with any standard keyboard, and is more about the accessibility of the software than the hardware, so it’s always wise to ensure that your company’s software is keyboard-navigation compatible! ...

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Common Workplace Accommodations

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Three people discuss various disabilities

In the latest tip sheet from AccessATE and DeafTEC, we discussed strategies that can lead to productive discussions with potential employers about hiring a person with disabilities. Here, we will dive further into that topic by going over common workplace accommodations. Some employers may have questions or concerns about providing accommodations for disabilities, so it may be prudent to have some examples at the ready.

Tip Sheet: Educate the Employer

Potential employers may be unclear on their obligation regarding accommodations. Employers are required by law to provide “reasonable accommodation” for employees with disabilities. Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that a reasonable accommodation is an adjustment to a job, work environment, or the manner of the hiring process. The ADA requires this as it relates to three aspects of employment:

  1. ensuring equal opportunity in the application process;
  2. enabling a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job; and
  3. making it possible for an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.

An employer may find these...

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Supporting Remote Work for Employees with Disabilities

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A grid of people working from their homes

The second of three tip sheets in the “ACE It!” series from AccessATE and DeafTEC discusses facilitating good communication for students with disabilities as they join the workforce. An important, closely-related topic is how to talk about issues for new employees or interns who may need to work remotely.

Supporting employees with disabilities who work remotely has been put to the test during the pandemic, as a significant number of people moved to working from home over the last year. One positive outcome of this has been that it has become evident that supporting remote work for those with disabilities is not as difficult, expensive, or inconvenient as some may have thought. Below we will discuss methods for supporting employees and interns with disabilities when they are working remotely.

Tip Sheet: Communicate with Employees with Disabilities

It’s important to note that much of what employers do to support workers with disabilities in the office also applies to supporting them remotely. Open discussions are critical and asking new employees and interns what works for them is a cornerstone to successful support, whether remote or in person. But there are many ideas and...

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