Being able to respond quickly to changes in the economy, from a local business closing to a global pandemic, is one of the strengths that career practitioners and agencies bring to their community. However, there is a risk that when we adapt quickly to changes, we could limit the accessibility of our services to clients.
During the first half of 2020, we have seen how quickly organizations from post-secondary career centres to government-funded employment agencies have adapted their services to a virtual format. Many organizations have been able to host their resources online and provide virtual appointments to engage as many of their clients as possible.
While there is ample research to demonstrate that offering virtual services to jobseekers has increased access, many individuals still face barriers.
Defining access and accessibility
One of the key challenges faced by organizations when looking at ensuring access is that definitions of accessibility and access are constantly evolving depending on the individual, community or service being considered. This can ultimately hinder the adoption of accessibility by organizations.
Most conversations around accessibility focus on disabilities (both visible and invisible). However, the reality faced by those within the career services space is that our clients present from a wide range of socio, economic and cultural backgrounds that can include multiple intersectional barriers. As such, access becomes unique from person to person. Therefore, the most effective definition of access comes from viewing the issue through the eyes of the individuals we are seeking to serve and understanding what they need to easily and safely access our spaces, whether physical or virtual.
“Our clients present from a wide range of socio, economic and cultural backgrounds that can include multiple intersectional barriers.”
Challenges affecting access
Considering that many organizations have already adapted their services and are providing them to individuals, now is a perfect time to reflect on what has been working and what has not. In the spirit of reflection, the following points highlight just some of the challenges to access that career practitioners and agencies should be aware of.
Access to technology
Access to technology including reliable and affordable internet service is an ongoing conversation that has become an important economic policy issue at various levels of government. In Canada, access to internet is reduced in rural and remote areas due to a lack of infrastructure or affordability. Households that are headed by lower-income, less-educated or older Canadians also have lower access rates compared to the Canadian average.
While some individuals have access to other forms of internet service (e.g. libraries/employment resource centers), clients may face other barriers, including physical barriers such as the location of services, that can limit their access to resources.
Another factor to consider is how assistive technologies (e.g. screen readers) interact with the tools your organization is using. For example, while online conferencing tools make use of close captioning technology and integration with screen readers, there are limits to these tools, especially when dealing with virtual presentations or screensharing, which can leave clients out of the loop.
Traditionally, online tools and resources have been limited as many organizations have focused on in-person service delivery. This has led to a level of excellence in terms of in-person content but limited capability regarding online or virtual services. While organizations have adapted, the capacity of staff to perform well in this role varies from organization to organization. Many organizations have found it easier to post existing resources online instead of creating new ones, so the quality of resources varies.
While no one expects career practitioners to become experts in this new delivery model in such a short period, certain tools can be used by practitioners to ensure a certain level of quality. The principles of Universal Design, for example – providing multiple means of representation, engagement and expression – can be used to improve resources.
More importantly, being up front with clients about your flexibility around accessibility is key, especially if you have not had the opportunity to develop specific resources at the present time.
Despite the work that career practitioners and governments have engaged in around raising awareness of the importance of career development, some people still believe that seeking help for your career is a sign of weakness. This stigma can be reinforced based on an individual’s culture or family. Research through social services and health supports highlights how international clients from non-“Western” countries and those from racialized backgrounds traditionally face increased levels of stigma with accessing services.
Individuals may also be concerned about accessing career services based on a lack of understanding of what is involved in the process, with people potentially connecting it more closely to personal counselling services. Career services can mitigate misunderstandings about their work by providing clear information on their websites about services and what clients can expect when they meet with a career professional.
Confidentiality is connected to the issue of stigma. One of the reasons that people access our in-person services is because they can speak to someone in confidence, without others overhearing or judging them. For clients who feel stigmatized, accessing services virtually such as through an online workshop or phone appointment may cause anxiety if they cannot guarantee privacy at home.
This can be further complicated when the client is dealing with issues that they do not want other members people to be aware of; for example, an individual who identifies with the LGBTQ2+ community but has not informed their family.
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While some organizations are making use of flexible appointment times or email counselling to help respect clients’ privacy concerns, these options can be limited based on the size and scope of the organization. However, asynchronous options, such as pre-recorded workshops and training can be a way to help address client concerns around access and confidentiality alongside other flexible options such as on-demand chat functions.
Added to this, career centres can increase the level of engagement of clients by providing information about these services through their various communication channels.
The client voice
The most important consideration around accessibility is that of the client and their needs. Clients know what works for them and should be part of the conversation around creating virtual resources and content.
If you are not comfortable or able to discuss these types of accessibility issues with clients, many community organizations are willing to provide their expertise around the needs of the populations that they serve. CERIC has conducted research and collaborated with organizations such as the National Educational Association of Disabled Students to share these perspectives and provide best practices and resources for working with different client groups and increasing access.
Some organizations are gradually reintroducing in-person services, which will help to resolve some of the above concerns. However, there are still many agencies across the country that will continue offering partial or full virtual services, and so we must continually review our accessibility practices. An added benefit to ensuring accessibility by those with diverse needs is that it increases accessibility for everyone, making services easier to find and utilize.