October 22, 2020
CEO Corner: Virtual Communication Platforms and the Fight for Equal Access
The pandemic has caused a seismic shift in how we work, learn, obtain services, and interact with each other. Before social distancing, meeting/communication platforms like Zoom, Go-To Meeting, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts were used for a few very specific purposes. Now they are almost a daily part of our lives. They allow many (though not all) of us to work from home. Kids are attending virtual classrooms. Mental and physical health care providers use “telehealth” to deliver services. On an individual level, many of us use video chat to connect with loved ones. There’s no question these platforms have been a lifesaver, right?
Well, that may be true for many. But for people with disabilities, virtual platforms are just another barrier to work through. Those who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing often rely on captioning or American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation to be able to fully participate. People with low vision and hearing loss may need Streamtext, a service that allows the user to change the size and color of the captioning. Even just getting connected to the platform may be difficult or impossible for people who cannot see or have fine motor dexterity issues.
The problem is that gaining equal access is not as easy as flipping a switch. Accessibility capabilities and quality vary widely from platform to platform. In addition, some organizations that provide public online meetings, trainings, and services are not thinking about their audience in terms of accessibility. Nor do they seem to understand that “reasonable accommodations” and “effective communication” also apply to online platforms and are required under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act for those who receive federal funding and the Americans with Disabilities Act for everyone else.
Unfortunately, while the technology may be relatively new, this type of barrier is all too familiar to the disability community. From bathrooms to curb cuts to buses to cell phones to the Internet and now to virtual platforms – the story remains the same. Over and over, it falls on people with disabilities to educate public entities about the need, encourage them to find and spend the necessary funds, and make sure they notify people that access is available and how to request it.
The bad news is that we once again find ourselves in this position. The good news is that we have the skills, knowledge, and determination to change things as we have so many times in the past.
To begin, check out our Issue Brief on this subject at bit.ly/ic-videoconf. It explains the differences between captioning services and platforms. Then, those who need accommodations to connect to the platforms must ask for and, if necessary, demand those services from whomever is offering a virtual experience. People without disabilities can also step up to the plate and question their organization’s capabilities in this area.
Asking for and about accommodations is our right! We have a right to participate fully in workplace meetings, telehealth services, classrooms, religious services, training programs, schools, and more. It is up to us to arm ourselves with information and start agitating for equal access.