Graphic of silhouettes of differently abled bodies moving in various directions.

Valuing Accessibility in the New Work Age: calling for change not convenience

Author: Kamil Ahmed

In an era of work characterized by efforts to establish ‘normalcy,’ change in the workplace has been swift but highly motivated by considerations of convenience and productivity, leaving little room for those of accessibility. 

A growing number of recruiters turn to virtual hiring solutions, big companies like Facebook, Twitter & Shopify offer work from home indefinitely, and processes of the justice system that critics have long painted as outdated witness dramatic digitization.

Headshot of Hillary Scanlon

 It seems that business justifications for investing in talent and technology or not, hiring or not, and making tasks and working hours flexible or not have suddenly crumbled. Now, change no longer results in the promotion of accessibility in the name of equity and inclusion, but rather from wanting to uphold productivity. 

We sat down with entrepreneur and disability advocate Hillary Scanlon (she/her) to explore the new work age with an accessibility lens developed through lived experience. Having lost her vision in 2016, Scanlon strives to foster environments inclusive of those with disabilities, and more specifically, vision loss. She agrees that 2020 has been critical for change, but not in the way many of us may see it.  

Who does change serve?

“We’re seeing change all around us but those changes are coming from a place of what is convenient for able-bodied individuals. Not necessarily because we are all of a sudden realizing that our systems have been inherently inaccessible”. 

According to 2017 data, North America is home to more than 67 million people with disabilities aged 15 and over (which account for 24% of the population). Only 48.3% of that population is employed compared to 78.6% for people without disabilities. 

“My concern is that when the pandemic is over and people try to return to what they thought of as normal, what will happen to these values around access and inclusion that are so closely aligned with those of the disability community when they are no longer convenient to an able-bodied lifestyle?”

Putting access into perspective

Asserting that employers need to consider that workplace accessibility is different from workplace safety and general productivity – Scanlon puts change in 2020 into perspective for those of us without a disability. 

“Everywhere I go, there’s a hand sanitizer station but I have no idea where it is. I’m told there is signage with building rules and policies, but I can’t read them. There are stickers on the floor, but I can’t interact with them. Some folks with vision loss who may not be visibly blind have been harassed for not following rules posted on signs. Individuals with autism that don’t have to wear a mask are bullied in public spaces for ‘not looking like they have autism or cystic fibrosis.’ While so much content and interaction is digital, folks assume that because something is simply online, it is inherently accessible when that’s not the reality.” 

True accessibility in the workplace goes far beyond providing accessible versions of documents at request, or adding alt-text to images. It’s part of a greater commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion that embeds accessibility as a value across the organization. 

Accessibility starts at the top

Scanlon calls on workplaces to commit to DEI and represent the disability community. Regardless of the size of your company, working with leadership to establish a vision for an accessible and inclusive work environment is key. 

Although there is legislation in both Canada and the United States around accessibility, in both work and personal life, folks with disabilities find themselves navigating discrimination. As part of a recent journal series titled Dispatches from the Pandemic, authors explore the current landscape of work through testimonials from disabled employees. Hillary echoes the sentiments of witness statements from individuals like Bernardo and Anahi, who prior to the pandemic were not privy to accommodations such as remote work and real-time captioning to meet their needs as someone who lives with Larsen’s Syndrome and someone who is deaf, respectively.  

In fact, 50% of all discrimination complaints received across North America through the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2019 were related to disability. 

“If you don’t take into account that accessibility of work is accessibility based on the lives of individuals with disability – if you don’t make that connection – we will revert back to exclusive workplace practices.” 

Accessibility in practice

Employers may be tempted to begin their inclusion of those with disabilities through a diversity, equity and inclusion statement on their careers page or job applications. While this is definitely a step, it should not be the first step. Scanlon reminds us that promises to make accommodations where procedures and training have not been established can cause harm to the applicant. 

Once an explicit conversation around workplace accessibility has been initiated at the top, workplaces can begin trickling those values down into practice through various tools and considerations. 

Some practices to embed accessibility at work follow.

1. Accommodation Policy 

Creating procedures for how you plan to provide needed accommodation to both current and prospective employees is fundamental in creating an accessible workplace. In addition to articulating relevant definitions, the policy should outline the role of involved stakeholders and communicate the responsibilities that will be upheld by HR, by supervisors, by employees and by job applicants. 

Employers can reap long-lasting benefits by offering accommodations for employees with disabilities as those accommodations can support other employees too. Tools like voice recognition software are seeing increased application across workforces because they can be more efficient. 

Scanlon states that “accommodations made for those with disabilities now can benefit those who may experience disability later on.” Embedding accessibility as a workplace value offers current and prospective employees a sense of care and security and prevents unnecessary expenses from employee turnover. 

See A Template for developing a workplace Accommodation Policy

2. Hiring & Recruiting 

Employers everywhere have had to reassess job functions and create relevant adaptations to ensure productivity amidst pandemic. This time of change is a great opportunity to prioritize accessibility and design for inclusivity. 

Language is critical in both adding or removing barriers to applications. Consideration of inclusion in job descriptions and diversity statements sets the tone for both present and future employees and their understanding of inclusivity in your workplace. When writing a job posting, focus on the functions of the job. Ask yourself what skills are absolutely needed to fulfill the job and articulate requirements through inclusive language. An inclusive job posting invites a breadth of expertise and experience that respond specifically to job requirements. For example, swap “valid driver’s license required” with, “the ability to travel and provide own transportation between Location A and Location B”.

See Equitable Hiring Practices to learn how to recruit top talent through six key organizational practices that enable an equiabe candidate experience. 

3. Technology 

Digital content creation has grown in 2020 but as organizations strive to stay connected with people through increased online presence, crucial pieces that enable accessibility are being forgotten. 

“Folks may assume that because it’s online, it’s inherently accessible” explains Scanlon. “In some ways technology has leveled much of the playing field for folks like me. It’s not so obvious in virtual meetings and interviews that I am blind. This removes some biases because they just don’t know. The flip side of them not knowing is, nothing is accessible until I bring it up at each step of the way.” 

Designing for accessibility is a package of considerations that enables access and participation across the disability community. 

Some considerations for making your online presence more accessible:

  • Closed-captions for video or audio instructions. 
  • Keystroke navigation vs mouse navigation in applications 
  • Alternative text for images that communicate information for screen readers
  • The use of color, graphics or graphics with embedded text to communicate directions/key information 
  • Screen contrast 
  • Complex navigation and timeout restrictions
  • CAPTCHA tests that don’t include an audio option
  • Ease of access to information around available accommodations 

See 6 Ways to Make your Careers Site more Accessible for a longer and more detailed list of critical web components that enable wide participation. 

The gist

Valuing accessibility as a workplace starts with addressing it the way in which those it seeks to serve, address it. That means naming and recording changes that enable workplace participation followed by exploration of who those changes serve, and by virtue, who they exclude. 

Education and capacity-building for inclusive work environments should be posited as a priority that drives accessibility. You could partner with organizations like March of all Dimes Canada that provides services to people with disabilities and those striving to support them or make accessibility a pillar in your existing DEI initiative with Lunaria. Accessibility in the new work age is not synonymous with virtual or remote – it is still exactly what it’s supposed to be: a set of plans and tools that enable entry and participation from all people. 

Learn about Hillary’s social enterprise, STIL (Sustainability Through an Inclusive Lens) that produces and provides businesses, institutions and public spaces with tactile and visual indicators designed to enable individuals with vision loss to navigate build environments independently. 

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