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Web Posted on: December 31, 1998

Telework and video-mediated communication: importance of real-time, interactive communication for workers with disabilities

Tamar Weiss
Adaptive Technology Resource Center
University of Toronto
130 St. George Street
Toronto, Canada

Centre for Learning Technologies
Ryerson, Polytechnic University
350 Victoria St.
Toronto, Canada

School of Occupational Therapy
Hadassah-Hebrew University
Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, 91240, Israel
Email: tamar.weiss@utoronto.ca

Deborah Fels
Centre for Learning Technologies
Polytechnic University
350 Victoria St.
Toronto, Canada

Jutta Treviranus
Adaptive Technology Resource Center
University of Toronto
130 St. George Street
Toronto, Canada

Underemployment of workers with disabilities

Despite competency in many professional fields, individuals with disabilities have unemployment rates which soar beyond those of their able bodied peers [1]. Although it appears that legislative moves, notably the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), have encouraged employers to hire and accommodate workers with disabilities, census reports continue to confirm an alarming underemployment of workers with disabilities [2]. A survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 1994 there were 29.4 million working-age (21 to 64 years of age) persons with disabilities [2]. Almost half of these people (14.2 million) were classified as having a severe disability (i.e., unable to perform one or more activities of daily living or is a long term user of assistive devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, and walkers). Employment rates for people with non-severe disabilities were 52% whereas rates for those with severe disabilities were only 26%. These percentages are extremely high especially compared to employment rates of about 82% for the total U.S. working age population.

Two of the most frequently cited reasons for high unemployment rates amongst workers with disabilities include difficulties related to commuting to and from the work site and inaccessibility of the work site [3]. The objective of this paper is to consider "long distance" working or telework as one realistic and viable solution for workers with disabilities. More specifically, the goals of this paper are to (1) present the advantages and disadvantages of telework for workers with disabilities and (2) propose that video-mediated communication with its capacity for real-time, interactive communication could dramaticallly enhance telework. The paper concludes with a presentation of PEBBLES, a mobile video conferencing robot that, to date, has been used successfully to enable sick elementary and secondary school students access to regular classroom activities while confined to a remote setting such as a hosptial. The use of a PEBBLES-like system for teleworkers with disabilities is suggested.

What is telework?

Telework may be defined as all work related activities that take place primarily outside the normal work setting location (usually, but not always, the worker's home) and are made possible by information and telecommunication technologies. Applications of telework amongst the "able-bodied" sector, have greatly increased in the past few years. For example, in Germany there are about 875,000 teleworkers, representing a significant portion of that country's work force [4].

There is no single way in which telework can be implemented [4]. Some individuals, such as sales representatives and service providers, have a need to conduct their work in several locations. Although these workers keep in contact with a "home" office, they usually do not maintain a direct, constant electronic connection. Other employees, for reasons related to personal preferences or needs, work at both the office and at home, spending more or less time at either setting as the need arises. A third category, the one classically referred to as telework, includes workers who work entirely from home. Finally, in a relatively new phenomenon, there are workers who work in their companies' satellite offices or in neighborhood offices known as "telecenters". All of these categories share a common philosophy and modus operendi - the worker maintains contact with the work setting primarily via asynchronous electronic communication devices such as email and fax.

In recent years, a number of research groups and organizations, particularly in Europe, have recognized the potential impact of telework for workers with disabilities and are currently examining its effectiveness [5,6]. However, to date, actual uses of telework for this population remain relatively small. For example, in contrast to the large number of able bodied teleworkers in Germany, there are only about 1000 teleworkers with disabilities (i.e., only slightly more than 0.5% of the unemployed people with a severe disability in 1997) [4].

Telework has a number of advantages and disadvantages for workers with disabilities. First, transportation to and from work with all the inherent difficulties related to commuting is almost entirely avoided. This represents a significant saving in the worker's time and energy. Second, workers can establish a work rhythm suited to their own specific needs. If, for example, morning toiletting is lengthy or frequent rest breaks are required, the worker is able to implement a suitable work schedule and pace [7,8]. Third, difficulties related to work place inaccessibility are avoided. Forth, the work load is often flexible and can be adjusted to the individual who is only able to work part-time. Telework lends itself to many tasks which use electronic media and the worker is thereby encouraged to learn and master technologies which, in turn, can lead to additional career opportunities; workers who become adept at the use of long distance work tools simultaneously acquire skills which make them more attractive on the job market [4].

Telework has several disadvantages, not the least of which is an apparent condoning of the difficulty in complying with disability advocacy legislation such as the ADA [9]. Other potential problems include a lessening of interaction with co-workers and supervisors. Long distance workers are deprived of many of the less formal interactions which take place at the work setting including the nurturing of mentor relationships and the use of collegial networking. The remote worker is less aware of many potentially significant "intangibles" such as office politics and co-worker mood. Finally, the remote worker may suffer from unrealistic expectations on the part of an employer who may suspect that the remote worker is not working hard enough [4]. These problems are often exacerbated by the occurrence of frequent technical difficulties which can impede the flow of work to and from the office and necessitate a considerable expenditure of the remote worker's time. Indeed the need to cope with technology related problems was one of the major problems noted by teleworkers [4].

Video-mediated communication: a role for "telepresence" in telework

Video-mediated communication refers to a synchronous linking of individuals at remote locations by means of transmitted audio and video signals. Buxton [10] and others [11] have described the many advantages that real-time interaction has in comparison to asynchronous techniques in the accomplishment of varying tasks. "Telepresence", the establishment of a sense of shared space among individuals who are working on a common task but are not in physical proximity, has been highlighted as one of the major potential contributions of video-mediated communication. Current video conferencing techniques enable a certain degree of telepresence; the ability of participants to observe each other's facial expressions, direction of gaze and body language, to hear voice and background hum, and to simultaneously act upon work objects (e.g., via shared software) provide many more channels of information than could otherwise be achieved. Additional techniques such as providing the ability to establish eye contact among participants, of mounting equipment to achieve landscape rather than portrait aspect ratios, the use of individual cameras, monitors, microphones and speakers for each participant, and the use life-size projected images could further enhance telepresence [10].

As indicated above, when working remotely via standard telework tools, the worker maintains contact with the work setting primarily via asynchronous electronic communication devices such as email and fax. With the exception of telephone interactions (which are limited in their scope and effectiveness), the remote worker does not interact with supervisors, co-workers and clients in real time. We suggest that telework would be greatly enhanced by the addition of video-mediated communication with particular emphasis on ways in which telepresence can alleviate many of disadvantages inherent in telework as it is currently used.

One solution for providing improved video-mediated communication is PEBBLES (Providing Education By Bringing Learning Environments to Students), a unique, semi-intelligent, mobile video conferencing robot which allows elementary and secondary school students access to regular classroom activities while confined to a remote location (usually a hospital) [12]. This system enables full two way visual and audio communication between the remote student and classmates in a real-time and interactive manner. The remote student can independently direct the in-class video camera to view any location in the classroom (via pan, tilt, and zoom features) and activate a mechanical hand to indicate a desire to participate in a particular activity. The classroom teacher can direct questions to the remote student, examine in-class work (via the remote-based camera) and transmit and receive homework assignments.

Dialogues between the remote student and classmates related to the academic material are encouraged and facilitated, as are social interactions. The current model, PEBBLES II, transmits audio and video via ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), a high speed, broadband digital public communications network. The remote user's image (head and shoulders) and voice are captured by a tracking video camera and hands-free microphone respectively. The video and audio signals are transmitted to the classroom site and output to a computer monitor and speakers. In the classroom, images and sounds are gathered using a video camera and room microphones as well as a wireless microphone worn by the teacher. The classroom video and audio signals are transmitted to the remote site and output on the computer screen and speakers. At both sites, the video conferencing system provides local video feedback to enable the user to see him/herself on the computer screen and/or separate LCD panel. At the remote site, a game pad controller is used as the interface to the video conferencing system to perform six camera control actions (pan left, pan right, tilt up, tilt down, zoom in, zoom out) and to activate the attention getting device (an animated hand).

By providing a more physical and interactive representative of the remote teleworker than either typical telework alternatives or traditional video conferencing systems (with their stationary screen placed at the front of a room or on a desk), PEBBLES greatly contributes to telepresence.

Only minor modifications of PEBBLES II are needed to make it suitable for use by adults with disabilities to help them carry out work-related tasks from remote locations. The effectiveness of PEBBLES in enabling these workers to carry out typical office and interpersonal tasks will be compared to more traditional "teleworking" methods of accomplishing the same duties.


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[3] Telework, Teletrade and Open Electronic Networking, Management Technology Associates for the UK Department of Trade and Industry, 1992.

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[5] Murray B, Kenny S Telework as an employment option for people with disabilities. Int J Rehabil Res 1990;13(3):205-14.

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[7] Business Solutions Team at British Telecommunications. Teleworking reports, 1998.

[8] Perry D. (1980), More Equal Than Some, Lady Margaret Hall Settlement.

[9] Fairweather NB. Moral Dilemmas and Issues of Providing Telework for Disabled People. ACM Computer Ethics Conference CEPE'97, Erasmus University, The Netherlands, 1997.

[10] Buxton, W. (1992). Telepresence: integrating shared task and person spaces. Proceedings of Graphics Interface '92, 123-129.

[11] Fin KE, Sellen AJ, Wilbur SB. (Eds) Video-mediated communication. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, NJ: 1997.

[12] Fels D, Treviranus J, Smith G. Developing a video-mediated communication system for hospitalized children. Submitted to the International Journal of Telemedicine, 1998.