Every person has unique characteristics, experiences, and backgrounds that impact how they show up in the world. Gender, ethnicity, and age are typically the first attributes that come to mind, yet the largest minority group are those with disabilities; one in four Americans identify as disabled! Most people are more familiar with disabilities that come with visual identifiers, such as a wheelchair. However, it also encompasses invisible disabilities such as neurodivergence, chronic pain, mental illness, brain injury, diabetes, and Crohn’s disease, among many others. The disabled community is the single minority group that anyone could join at any time. A car accident could cause temporarily impaired vision, or you could contract Lyme disease and experience long-term pain and fatigue. With people coming from all walks of life, ensuring doors are open to everyone, literally and figuratively, is beneficial to all.
What is Accessibility?
Physical accessibility, such as wheelchair ramps or parking permits, is often the starting point when considering accessibility in the workplace. However, accessibility encompasses all aspects influencing your ability to access or benefit from a system or environment. There are three dimensions of accessibility in the workplace; physical accessibility, technological accessibility, and attitudinal awareness.
Physical accessibility considers the physical environment and ensures those with disabilities are equally able to enter, access, and utilize all features that anyone else can access. Curb cuts, braille signage, accessible restrooms, and wide entrances and exits for mobility all play a part in physical accessibility. Flexible work schedules and remote work can also benefit employees with disabilities, providing them the freedom to manage their surroundings, use their existing home adaptions, access less stimulating environments, and control their routine. It’s essential to understand such modifications aren’t an advantage or favoritism. They simply enable employees with disabilities to accomplish tasks they are capable of performing. Most physical adaptions cost little if anything – usually less than $500 when cost is involved, and there are tax incentives to help.
Technological accessibility means everyone can use technology successfully, regardless of functional ability. Think about the ways your workplace utilizes technology. Are closed captions available during online meetings? Is company software compatible with assistive devices such as screen readers and speech recognition systems, so those with neurological, visual, and physical disabilities can operate efficiently? Accessibility enables people with disabilities to access the same information as everyone else regardless of whether they can manipulate a mouse, how many colors they can see, how much they can hear, or how they process information.
Attitudinal awareness acknowledges how perceptions, behaviors, and assumptions create barriers to accessibility. It’s one of the most critical yet challenging obstacles to remove; it’s easy to install a wheelchair ramp compared to changing negative perceptions deeply ingrained in society. People may not be aware that a lack of audible crosswalk signals limits a person with a disability from participating in everyday life and view the modification as a luxury rather than a necessity. A coworker or manager may assume a person with a disability is unable to complete certain tasks, dismissing them as incapable. Accommodations could be viewed as an unfair advantage, affecting relationships with team members. Attitudinal barriers can plant seeds of doubt in the professional abilities of a worker with disabilities, impacting their career trajectory, damaging relationships, and dismantling self-worth.
DEI & Accessibility
Diversity, equity, & inclusion initiatives go hand in hand with accessibility;
Inclusive workplaces can’t exist without accessibility. Inclusion isn’t ensured for all if anyone experiences barriers to access. In an inclusive workplace, employees feel comfortable openly discussing their disability status. A supportive, inclusive environment fosters psychological safety, where an employee with ADHD feels comfortable requesting a meeting be held later in the day when they are better able to focus. Inclusive, accessible workplaces welcome and value a variety of inputs, respecting each individual’s unique contributions.
Diversity typically refers to age, sex, and ethnicity, but it encompasses a broader range of individual experiences and attributes, including disability. Fostering a culture of diversity ensures multiple perspectives are represented, helping teams value and appreciate their differences. When people collaborate in diverse groups, they bring different information, opinions, skills, and insights, leading to new approaches to problem-solving and greater creativity.
Equity and accessibility are two sides of the same coin. Equity considers the individual and personal nature of each person’s challenges to ensure they have equal opportunities to succeed by removing barriers and ensuring equal access to resources. For example, an equitable workplace would provide closed captions during a Zoom meeting to ensure it is accessible to those with impaired hearing. Accessible, equitable workplaces maximize employees’ productivity by supporting them with the tools to reach their full potential.
Why Accessibility Matters
People with disabilities aren’t the only ones who benefit from accessible workplaces- everyone does! Accessible workplaces help increase productivity by recognizing and addressing the unique needs of each team member. Rather than dictating how to approach tasks, leaders can promote accessibility by determining what success looks like and working with employees to achieve those outcomes in a way that plays to employees’ strengths.
When your direct reports are trusted and given the tools to succeed, productivity increases, and morale improves, leading to higher retention. Cultivating a welcoming workplace means you reap the benefits of employees feeling empowered to be themselves. Everyone benefits when diverse perspectives are encouraged and considered; it prevents groupthink and promotes creativity, helping create products and services that resonate with clients and expanding your customer base.
Accessibility ensures a broader pool of talent can apply and advance, helping your bottom line and strengthening your recruiting and retention strategies. In fact, 80% of surveyed Millennials say accessibility and inclusivity benefits are significant decision-making factors when evaluating a job. Furthermore, companies actively seeking to hire those with disabilities report 28% higher revenue, higher shareholder returns, and twice the net incomes of industry peers.
How to Create an Accessible Workplace
Accessible workplaces are ones where employees don’t have to leave their identities at the door; their unique needs are considered and accommodated.
Increase awareness of accessibility issues. The first step to improving accessibility is educating yourself and your team about disabilities, common barriers people with disabilities face, and why accommodations matter. Education helps dispel stigma and addresses attitudinal awareness (the biases and assumptions that create barriers, such as the fear of offending a person with disabilities and choosing to avoid or exclude them). Learning about the disabled community helps you create effective policies, procedures, and processes because when an employee discloses a disability, leaders need to understand what this means and how best to support them. The burden shouldn’t be solely on the person with disabilities to figure out solutions.
Gain support from leadership. Aligning yourself with leadership and getting buy-in from decision-makers is essential for long-term success. With their support, you can secure resources to enact real change from the top down. When your team sees those with influence are committed to creating an accessible workplace, it sends a strong message that the organization cares for and values its employees.
Request feedback from employees. Your team can provide valuable insight on accessibility issues or gaps they experience or witness day-to-day. After all, they are uniquely positioned to details that are not readily visible to managers. How can you ensure initiatives are hitting the mark without their feedback? Considering employee feedback shows your team that their voices matter and have a tangible impact. Asking your team for their insights improves engagement while empowering and validating your team.
Develop company-wide initiatives. One way to formalize accessibility programming is through a committee. With leaders from each department facilitating discussions, the committee serves as an open forum for ideas and conversations where those with disabilities can find community and support. With advocates in each department throughout the organization, it’s easier to enact real change.
It takes commitment and solidarity from all employees to address the stigma surrounding disabilities and create an accessible workplace. Make sure to evaluate the way initiatives are received and ask for feedback throughout the year to find gaps and continue to improve accessibility for all.
Note: Employees must have autonomy and choice in disclosing disabilities, and all disclosures must be handled with confidentiality and care. One measure to help dispel stigma and create a more psychologically safe environment is to add an optional disability status in employee’s email signature along with their name, title, and pronouns.