Accessibility & Inclusion Lessons from the Pandemic

A laptop computer displays a woman wearing a mask on a virtual meeting, while another woman's hand is shown holding a pen over a notebook.
This post discusses lessons we’ve learned from the past year that we should apply toward making the world more accessible and inclusive.

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

Introduction

Last week, I shared Heather Younger’s advice to be authentic in everything you do, as well as Sarah Elkins’ advice to share your story. In this very personal post, I’ll do both. This post discusses lessons we’ve learned from the past year that we should apply toward making the world more accessible and inclusive.

Since going virtual over the past year, many people are all Zoomed out and can’t wait to get back to doing everything face to face. Others hope that remote work and other virtual opportunities remain available long after the pandemic is over.

I am of the second school of thought. As terrible as the pandemic has been, it has created a more accessible world for me and many others with disabilities. For example, services like telehealth and grocery delivery are more widely available. For many, these are not just conveniences but necessities. When the pandemic is over, I hope we can keep some of the positive changes that have led to greater accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities.

A Word About Hidden Disabilities

You wouldn’t know from looking at me that I have a disability, let alone two. Depending on the circumstances, you could spend a day with me and be none the wiser. That is, unless you wanted to go out to eat. One of my disabilities is severe airborne food allergies to coffee, chocolate, bananas, pumpkin, and anything with caffeine. Not only can I not consume these foods, but I can’t be around them. At all. The tiniest amount of particles in the air is enough to trigger a potentially deadly reaction.

You might be thinking, “Wait, that’s a disability?” Let’s take a moment to look at how the Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability. It is a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

As you may know, there are many types of allergic reactions ranging from minor to life-threatening. My reactions fall into the latter category and include asthma and anaphylaxis. Thus, my ability to breathe (and, you know, live) is substantially limited if I’m exposed to my allergens—which are everywhere. I can’t go to a restaurant, movie theater, basketball game, hotel… the list goes on. And I definitely can’t work in a traditional office.

There are many types of hidden disabilities, and I bet you know at least a few people who have one. You probably work with someone who has a hidden disability. If you’re in a management position, you might have had an employee come to you asking for accommodations. When you’re having those conversations, remember to focus on the modifications requested rather than asking for details about the person’s condition.

What Remote Work Means to Me

Remote work has quite literally been a lifesaver for me. I’ve been working from home since 2015, but until fairly recently, I would occasionally go to a client’s site to have meetings, facilitate focus groups, conduct train-the-trainer sessions, or observe pilot offerings. These site visits were tricky to navigate when I had only one airborne allergy; I was completely reliant on the consideration of others.

The more allergies I developed, the riskier in-person meetings became. When my coffee allergy became airborne a few years ago, I worried whether I’d even be able to continue working. Most of my projects to that point had required at least some face-to face time. But then came the pandemic, and the world went virtual.

Remote Work Can Be a Game-Changer

To illustrate what a difference remote work can make, I’ll tell you about my other disability. Ten years ago, I sustained a concussion that never healed properly. Most people think a concussion is no big deal because about 85% of concussions heal completely within a few weeks. But for the other 15%, it’s a very big deal. It is, after all, a type of traumatic brain injury—and there’s no such thing as a “minor” brain injury.

My symptoms included a constant headache (which lasted nearly eight years), frequent migraines, vertigo, nausea, vision disturbances, aphasia, acquired dyslexia and dyscalculia, cognitive issues, memory loss, sensory overload, and auditory processing problems. 

When I returned to work after nearly six months (when the double vision subsided enough that I could tolerate eight hours at a computer), my employer allowed me to work from home at first, just until I was able to drive again. I’m thankful they provided that accommodation, but honestly, they could have done better.

a row of spoons

If you’re not already familiar with it, take a few minutes to read the spoon theory. My daily commute, the office’s fluorescent lights, and the noisy distractions from coworkers all exacerbated my symptoms. By the time I got home each night, I was completely out of spoons. All my energy had been depleted. Instead of getting better, I had setback after setback in my recovery. I ended up taking many more sick days than would have been necessary if I’d been allowed to work a flexible schedule from home.

After I made some hard decisions about my career—eventually going freelance so I could work from home—I began seeing real improvements in my health. I am grateful to say that most of the symptoms I listed above have abated, although a few will likely be with me for life.

Offering Remote Work Shows You Care About Accessibility & Inclusion

Many people with chronic conditions are fighting the same kind of battle I did. Being able to work from home—at least part of the time—could help them be more productive, happier, and healthier.

The silver lining from the last year is that remote work has become available to more employees than ever before. Not only has technology improved, but employers’ attitudes have shifted as well. On average, employees are more productive, and all indications are that remote work is here to stay.

If you’re a manager making decisions about employees returning to the office, I hope you’ll keep in mind the many benefits of remote work to employees and the organization. (And please stop using the term “Return to Work.” We’re working now.)

If you’re leading virtual meetings or training events, remember to think about accessibility. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Does your virtual meeting platform offer accessibility features?
  • If you’re showing a video, is it captioned?
  • If you’re sharing a document, did you provide an accessible copy to employees who use screen readers?

Here’s one more little tip from my personal experience with visual vertigo: During video calls, please turn off your ceiling fan. It can create a flicker effect that is especially dangerous for people with seizure disorders.

Don't Leave Virtual Training and Conferences Behind

Companies that had never done virtual training before 2020 have now been at it for a year. Many have seen that it can be as effective and engaging as face-to-face classes. If that hasn’t been the case for you, you might want to check out these tips. (I’ll have more for you next week!) Even though redesigning traditional classes for face-to-face delivery takes time and money, it makes your training available to more people—with the added benefit of saving money in the end.

For years, I haven’t been able to attend conferences because of my disability, but now that many events have gone virtual, I don’t have to miss out. I’m excited to be attending my first Learning Solutions conference next month!

I’ve been impressed by the creative solutions that organizers have come up with for the virtual events I’ve attended lately—from speed networking at TLDC’s Women of L&D conference to live translators at the recent International Summit of the Americas on Violence Against Indigenous Women.

I realize conference organizers are looking forward to being able to have these events in person again, but I hope they will keep stretching those creative muscles to consider how they can continue to open up these events for people like me who are unable to attend in person.

Summary

I’m embarrassed to admit how much I didn’t know about accessibility before I developed disabilities of my own. Like many people in this industry, I considered what was required for Section 508 compliance, and that’s about it. I am still learning every day. I hope that by sharing my story, I can help others consider the many types of accommodations that might be necessary for different types of disabilities. After all, it’s only by seeking to understand viewpoints other than our own that we will make the world a more inclusive place. 

I also hope that after the pandemic is over, the doors that had been closed for many people with disabilities remain open to us through remote work and virtual learning.

"Inclusion is not a strategy to help people fit into the systems and structures which exist in our societies. It is about transforming those systems and structures to make it better for everyone. Inclusion is about creating a better world for everyone." Diane Richler, Past President, Inclusion International

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Weigh In!

Did this post resonate with you? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below.

...But Please Don't Say These Things

I am happy and living my best life, so there’s no need to express sympathy. But in case you’re going there, here are a few things I’ve heard from well-meaning people that just aren’t helpful. Please avoid these types of statements when speaking to someone with a disability. 

  • “How can you live like that?”
  • “I couldn’t deal with that.” (Or worse, “I’d kill myself.”)
  • “I thought I had it bad, but I look at you and see it could be worse.”
  • “Thank goodness I don’t have that.”

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