Companies: Get Started with Accessibility and Hiring People with Disabilities

Many companies’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives overlook people with disabilities and accessibility. Hence, they have a gaping hole in their workforce. People with disabilities come up with innovative solutions and ways to better their companies. We also notice things most employees won’t catch.

Jessica Lopez has a great post that lists technology inventions by people with disabilities. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pointed out something missing that seemed simple. Yet, people respond with surprise and fix it.

However, I must remind myself that I think about accessibility every day because it’s related to my work and lived experience. Most don’t think about accessibility even if they use it, like captions. Truly. Accessibility benefits everyone.

How Accessibility Benefits More Than Those with Disabilities

This image from Arbetsfö is based on the one in the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit. It shows how people benefit from accessibility for some of the senses.

A chart of permanent, temporary, situational impairments and disabilities for touch, see, hear, speak, and cognitive.
A chart of permanent, temporary, and situational impairments and disabilities for touch, see, hear, speak, and cognitive. The first is touch with permanent being one arm, temporary being an arm injury, and situational is a person carry a baby or computer. Second is see with blind, cataract, and sun on screen. Third is hear with deaf, ear infection, and noisy surroundings. Fourth is speak with non-verbal, laryngitis, and heavy accent. Fifth is cognitive with ADHD / concentration difficulties, fatigue / depression, and open office-landscape.

Some disabled people complained about this image. They believe it equates a situational or temporary impairment with a permanent disability. Not at all. It’s showing the possibilities of how each persona could be affected.

Permanent disabilities

This is a disability that will never go away. It affects a person’s life every day. I’ve been deaf since birth. It affects my speech and ability to listen. It’s possible to be born with the disability or acquire it later.

Temporary impairments

An injury or an illness can affect a person’s senses temporarily. They may have to interact with the world differently … on a short-term basis. When I tore a ligament in my thumb, I couldn’t use a keyboard with both hands.

Growing up, I had asthma. By the time I graduated from high school, it was gone. At the time I had asthma, we thought it was permanent. But because it went away, it was temporary.

Situational impairments

This is a brief instance in which a person runs into a situation that changes their interactions. A parent carrying a baby will be careful not to do something with both hands. A noisy bar often has the captions turned on because people can’t hear the TV.

And there’s one more that we need to consider.

Episodic impairments or disabilities

An episodic impairment or disability can strike anytime. It can last for a short time or a long time. There is likely no pattern as to when it will affect someone.

One side effect of my deafness is that I have a vestibular disorder. It makes me more likely to have motion sickness or dizziness. It’s an episodic disability because it doesn’t affect my life daily. Thank goodness. I’d rather have the flu than vertigo.

When full-on vertigo hits, I can’t do anything but stay in bed with my eyes closed. I can’t read a book. I can’t watch TV. Fortunately, vertigo only happens a few times a year. But when it does, it changes my interactions with the world.

For mild vertigo, I limit or slow my movements and avoid any action that would aggravate it like websites filled with motion. By the way, a lot more people have problems with motion than most realize. This is why it’s important to be conscious of motion on websites and digital content.

I’ve heard from people who have arthritis and conditions that affect their hand mobility. They interact with websites in a different way on those bad days. They have both methods ready for them. On good days, they use one. On bad days, they use the other.

Here are examples of episodic impairments or disabilities. Note these can be permanent, situational, and temporary.

  • Migraines
  • Arthritis
  • PTSD
  • Asthma
  • Vertigo
  • Seizures

To sum up …

  • A permanent disability never goes away and it affects a person’s daily life.
  • A temporary impairment eventually goes away.
  • A situational impairment is brief as once the situation changes, it goes away.
  • An episodic impairment or disability comes and goes at unpredictable times and lasts for different amounts of time.

Why are these important? They’re a reminder of the importance of inclusive design with multiple interaction and communication options. It expands our reach as multiple people benefit from accessibility.

And if you work in marketing, make sure at least one in four personas has a disability. Otherwise, the personas don’t reflect reality.

Accessibility Is for Everyone, Not Just People with Disabilities

Accessibility is the right thing to do. It’s a human right. This should be reason enough to bake accessibility into products, services, experiences, and workplaces. Yet, many companies still don’t prioritize accessibility. Look at virtual reality. A lot of apps aren’t accessible.

Some disabled people believe giving any reason other than “It’s a human right” is ableist. Unfortunately, businesses don’t think this way.

Businesses think:

  • Our audience isn’t likely to have people with disabilities.
  • It’s not worth it for a few people.
  • It costs too much money.
  • Change is too hard.

So, they need an education on how everyone uses accessibility. In creating inaccessible products, services, experiences, and workplaces, they’re narrowing their audience.

Here are three ways that show how everyone uses accessibility.

1. Curb-cut effect

This is when accessibility was originally designed for a specific disability. And it ends up helping many others who don’t have the disability. Captions are the best example of this as 80% of the people who use captions are NOT deaf or hard of hearing. And many people browse social media with the sound off.

2. Anyone can become disabled or impaired

People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world. And anyone can join this group at any time. In fact, the longer people live, the greater the likelihood they will have a disability at some point in their lives.

Additionally, someone can experience a temporary, situational, or episodic impairment at any time. When I tore a ligament in my thumb, I had to change how I interacted with the world: digitally and non-digitally. This is when I first tried speech-to-text software and it was a disaster! All I got out of it was a hilarious blog post.

Besides, we all experience cognitive impairment every day. All it takes is one sleepless night, a stressful situation, a meal that didn’t agree, or a distracting environment to affect our cognitive functions. This makes it harder for us to absorb any inputs. That’s why all content should be in plain language.

A study showed the more educated people are, the greater the preference for plain language. We are inundated with so much information. Plain language helps us understand the message on the first read without straining.

3. Reverse accessibility aka accidental accessibility

This is a product that wasn’t made with accessibility in mind. In using it, people discovered it provided accessibility. I like what Keely Cat-Wells calls it: “Accidental accessibility.”

My Apple Watch is a great example as I originally got it for fitness. Little did I know it would be an amazing accessibility tool. When my watch vibrates, I know if it’s a text message, door camera motion, or a timer going off without looking at it.

If a company wants to expand its reach, then it will make accessibility a priority.

How Can You Get a Company to Invest in Accessibility?

I asked Frances West, IBM’s first Chief Accessibility Officer, how to compel a company to take the next step in investing in accessibility. She advises doing a search for “Chief Accessibility Officer.” There are quite a few of them now.

By the way, I did a search. The top results were all Microsoft’s Jenny Lay-Flurrie, of course. So, use the following to get more diversity in your results:

-microsoft -lay-flurrie

Frances is right. The search results showed executives who have been appointed as Chief Accessibility Officer or recruiters looking to hire them. She also says to ask why it hasn’t been done it yet.

She became IBM’s Chief Accessibility Officer way back in 2014! Companies are already late to the game. Also, check out the list of companies scoring high on Disability:IN’s Disability Equality Index.

There’s a reason companies create this title. A lot of research shows being accessibility-forward benefits the company’s bottom line.

Get the buy-in from the top

While the first step is to appoint an executive as an accessibility officer, sometimes that can’t happen quickly. Companies don’t have to wait until a C-level gets “accessibility” in their title. They can have their diversity officer or an executive in a similar role do that in the interim.

For accessibility to become part of a company’s journey and culture requires executive buy-in. This person needs to send the message to the company that “We’re investing in accessibility and creating an accessible workplace for everyone including people with disabilities.”

And the executive’s first act will be to conduct company-wide accessibility and disability awareness training. This training needs to reinforce the message that accessibility is everyone’s responsibility.

They can assign directors or higher-level managers to oversee accessibility in their departments.

Once an executive officially has accessibility as part of their job description, they need to have a deputy. Why? Because when the executive leaves, you don’t want accessibility to go with them. Having a deputy will ensure the company stays on its accessibility journey.

Hold accessibility and disability awareness training

Start now. Two steps.

  1. Assign an executive to be the voice for accessibility. This ensures No. 2 happens and the work continues.
  2. Hold company-wide accessibility and disability awareness training.

This training needs to cover how the company can become a more accessible workplace. After all, its own employees will benefit from accessibility. I’m not saying this because I provide training. In fact, I’d rather you hire someone else to do the training than skip it.

The training should help ensure people with disabilities are included. Diversity is inviting disabled people to the party. Inclusion is adding disabled people to the planning committee.

Once the training is done, the departments can start working on their part, including human resources. As the company makes progress on their DEI journey, they need to create ways for disabled people to advance their careers.

How to Make Progress in Hiring People with Disabilities

Again, accessibility is everyone’s job. Every department will need its own processes for accessibility. This includes human resources. First, know that it will take time to create a more accessible job application process. Think progress over perfection.

Also, it’s important to know that hiring disabled people is only half of the DEI equation. The other half — and equally important — is to create a culture of inclusion to ensure everyone has the tools to do their best work.

Start with the simple things

One simple thing they can do is to ensure captions are always available as an option for all video calls. Not just for candidates but also for their internal meetings. Many people benefit from captions and not everyone will ask for them. People who aren’t deaf or hard of hearing don’t want to risk the company thinking they have a disability.

Another easy thing to do is to verify the application form gives options for being contacted. Not everyone wants a phone call. A large company offers phone, text, and email as options.

On the careers page, include a statement about accommodations and accessibility. List at least two contact options. Typically, this is an email and a phone number. Make it clear that the company wants to ensure the candidate has everything they need to complete their application.

Creating more accessible communications

In creating an objective hiring process, be aware that a phone call is not free of bias. People’s accents and use of language will give them away. Some people don’t speak or have speech disabilities.

When conducting interviews through video calls, make sure all the interviewers are on camera. If someone must be off-camera due to health reasons or a disability, then they need to be willing to enter their questions and comments in the chat box.

Automatic captions don’t always get things right. It’s harder to catch people who are not on camera. As a lipreader dependent on captions, I struggle with off-camera conversations. It’s because I have to depend on the captions alone with no backup.

Continue to make progress with the hiring process

These little things communicate that your company wants to be accommodating and flexible for everyone. This is how you show people with disabilities are a part of your diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

After doing these things, continue to make progress in building a more accessible hiring process. Every step, big or small, matters.

It helps if the company has someone in the role of Director of Accessibility or something along these lines. This person can be a resource for all the departments. They work with each department to determine the next steps for building a more accessible workplace.

Leveling Up by Hiring People with Disabilities

Selfie of me with curly hair wearing "Nothing without us" shirt with accessibility icon in the O's
Selfie of me with curly hair wearing “Nothing without us” shirt with accessibility icon in the O’s

Have you heard or seen the following?

“Nothing about us without us”

It’s time to level up! It’s simple. Drop “about us.”

Let’s make it “Nothing without us.”

This says you include people with disabilities. They’re employees of your company. No longer are people with disabilities the outsiders. They’re now the insiders and have voices in your company.

If you want to do diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) right, then that means including and valuing people with disabilities. Smart organizations create a brain trust consisting of people with different disabilities. They discuss projects, web pages, products, and anything that is public-facing or affects the company.

The brain trust ensures inclusivity, accessibility, and the proper use of language. This is not a role on top of their job. It needs to be part of their jobs and salary.

Remember accessibility for your employees and vendors

Accessibility isn’t just for your customers. Don’t forget your own backyard! Your employees and vendors.

The best companies think of their employees first. Not the bottom line. Not the customer. When you help your employees thrive, it carries with them in everything they do. That includes interactions with customers. (Hopefully, employees and customers have multiple options for communication and interaction.)

A happy workplace where everyone feels safe to be themselves fully has a domino effect on the bottom line. Accenture’s “Disability Inclusion Advantage” [PDF] research shows that companies that hire people with disabilities make 28% higher revenue and outperform on profitability and value creation.

Yet, Harvard Business Review says 76% of employees with disabilities don’t disclose their disabilities at work and 80% of C-suite executives and their direct reports with disabilities aren’t disclosing either.

Getting started in creating a safe space for all

The first thing to do to change this requires genuine executive buy-in. Then, the next step is to show it rather than talk about it.

A powerful way to start and show it is if an executive has a disability — invisible or otherwise — post an article with them sharing this. It could be an interview or an essay.

Here are other easy ways to show commitment to supporting everyone regardless of ability or disability …

  • Conduct a company-wide disability and accessibility awareness training.
  • Ensure your website is accessible. All videos contain captions, transcripts, audio descriptions.
  • Create accessible social media and other public-facing content.
  • Encourage everyone to turn on the captions for all video meetings.
  • Offer multiple communication options for employees, job applicants, and customers.

The Journey to a More Accessible Workplace

Baking-in accessibility and hiring people with disabilities is a journey. The organization chart doesn’t matter. Companies that prioritize accessibility and hire disabled folks have these three things in common:

  1. Executive leadership champions accessibility. They emphasize that people with disabilities are an important part of DEI.
  2. They consider accessibility everyone’s responsibility and reinforce that with company-wide disability and accessibility awareness training.
  3. Accessibility is baked into the company culture, including career advancement opportunities.

No. 3 means they do things like take a shift-left approach to product development. (Accessibility enters the picture at the start of the project.) They ask every employee what they can do to help them be successful in their roles. Employees ask each other what are the best ways to communicate and collaborate.

They provide communication options in every customer interaction. They work to make progress every day. They make it easy to report accessibility issues. They may not do all of these things, but they’re working toward achieving this and more.

Accessibility isn’t an all-or-nothing deal. Get started. Make progress every day. Sometimes progress sets you back. And that’s OK. The important thing is to do something.

Level up Your DEI Efforts

Many companies have a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative. However, they need help with creating an accessible and inclusive workplace. You can level up your DEI with my help as I do consulting and speaking. Contact me or get to know me.

Image credit: GDJ on Pixabay

2 thoughts on “Companies: Get Started with Accessibility and Hiring People with Disabilities”

  1. A very detailed article! Thank you! You brought up some issues that I had forgotten about when it comes to inclusion and equity. As an elementary music teacher (hearing aids since 1st grade) who recently left that field, I remember times when I struggled with whether or not to speak about problems that seemed only to affect me. You have encouraged me to write about these events—I thank you for all of your efforts in educating the business community and your advocacy for those who are otherwise-abled. If you don’t mind, I would love to share these writings with you. I know you will “get it” and not brush off the situations and the feelings engendered.


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