It is the very unfortunate fact that most organizations do not understand how to remove the workforce-related challenges that workers with disabilities face. Additionally, there is often an assumption that hiring people with disabilities is complex or burdensome. However, the resounding truth that the accessibility community knows to be true is that hiring people with disabilities is the right thing to do.
It is clear that one way to push this message forward is to break down the myth that people with disabilities are not independent and clearly address the easy steps organizations can take to create an accessible workplace.
Prerequisite step 1: People with Disabilities are Independent
Most employers are not aware of the fact that people with disabilities are independent in their day to day activities. For example, people with disabilities use assistive technologies to navigate the web on their own. Although people with disabilities may not understand this because they are unfamiliar with assistive technologies, it does not mean they should assume that people with disabilities do not use the web independently.
Organizations may also be unfamiliar with how a person with a disability does day to day activities on their own, like getting to and from the office. It is the responsibility of the organization or HR department to not assume that people with disabilities cannot complete daily tasks because they cannot empathize or are unfamiliar with the technologies and ways that people with disabilities lead independent lives.
How to Create an Accessible Workplace
Having said that, some employers may not be aware of how to create an accessible workplace. For example, they may not know that it is their responsibility to provide screen reader software for someone who is visually impaired. I personally am visually impaired, below are a few important ways that my employer creates an accessible workplace:
- Email conversations: all the emails sent internally are accessible. This can be done in many simple ways. For example, all images in the email have text alternatives (alt text). As emails are very critical in performing our day to day job, if these emails are not accessible, I would have been excluded in a critical part of my job.
- Meeting Prep: distribute accessible presentations in advance to allow people with disabilities to digest the content before the actual presentation. It is commonplace for my company to have monthly meetings. Presenters should send their presentation to the meeting organizer at least one day before the meeting. The presenter or the organizer should ensure the presentation is accessible, and then distribute the presentation beforehand. This is especially helpful if the presentation includes complex charts, graphs, etc. This enables me to understand the intended meaning of the slide during the actual presentation.
- Internal tools: Intranet, time entry systems, expense systems or other internal software must be accessible. At my company all internal software is accessible. Imagine what would happen if these systems were not accessible, I would not have the ability to productively or independently submit my time card, access important company information, or submit my expense reports.
- Internal documents: SOWs, PDFs, Word Documents, Powerpoints, and Excel documents should all be accessible. In my position, SOWs are critical for me to properly do my job. At the beginning of every project, I must be able to understand the scope, critical information, and timeline of the project. If these documents are not accessible, I am severely limited in my ability to do my job.
- Online meeting tools: meeting software such as GoToMeeting, Webex, or Zoom need to be accessible. In my role, I am constantly attending client and internal calls. Accessible versions of this software allow me to mute, turn off my camera, or chat using my assistive technology without getting trapped in inaccessible navigation. Additionally, it is best practice for large staff meetings should have live captions for those who are hearing impaired.
- Visual assistance: this is an area that some companies may not be familiar with. As part of my job, I need to perform accessibility audit on various sites. While auditing the site for accessibility, I may not be able to understand complete page as sites contain inaccessible elements. To help with this, a sighted person sits with me and explains the complete page, this is visual assistance. The explanation of the page helps us to visualize the page and this would also help us to raise the accurate accessibility issues. This way, I can be confident about the issues that I have reported to the client. Having dedicated visual assistance resources at our organization is vital for me to confidently and fully complete my job.
- Accountability and equal opportunity: some organizations hire a person with a disability but are very scared for to give the accountability of the various tasks. People with disabilities should have the same accountability and equal opportunity as those without disabilities. Period.
- External assets: our organization not only takes care of the accessibility of internal tools and documents but also requires that all external facing assets are accessible. For example, our website, invoices, proposals, etc are all accessible. This sends the message home that accessibility is non-negotiable and gives me the confidence that accessibility is important to my employer.
- Building accessibility: I have been talking about how well digital accessibility helped me complete our job. The workplace environment is just as important in the digital workplace. Having carpet in a building allows visually impaired employees to navigate easier. The building also has a simple layout without any long hallways, ensuring that those who are visually impaired do not easily lose their way.
- Transportation: Last, but not least, our employer provides our office with a transportation facility for employees with disabilities. Having an office transportation facility makes my commute smoother and easier.
All the above factors make my job independent and help me to lead my professional and personal life with dignity and equality. I strongly believe that if any employer starts providing reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities to work independently, that employees with disabilities would become independent like me.