Your team consists of diverse individuals with various abilities, skills, and talents. And each employee deserves equal access to the tools and resources to fulfill their job responsibilities without unnecessary barriers.
Accessibility in the workplace means more than building wheelchair ramps or designating parking spaces, though. In our latest episode of the Team Building Saves the World podcast, we sat down with Naomi Panarella, a lead facilitator for Beyond our Sight. Naomi emphasized that while accessibility is a complex topic, the end goal doesn’t have to be. “We just need the playing field to be fair for everyone.”
In this article, we’ll explore what workplace accessibility is, why it’s essential, and the three best practices you’ll need to know to create an accessible workplace for your team.
An Accessible Workplace: What Does This Involve?
At its core, the word access means the ability to approach or enter – without barriers. An accessible workplace is one where every employee has the tools, resources, and accommodations they need to perform their job duties.
The Americans With Disabilities Act is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals with disabilities in all aspects of employment – starting with the application process. It also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to improve access for job applicants and employees.
Before diving into what we mean by reasonable accommodations, let’s first break down the different accommodations you must consider.
When you think of physical accommodations, what comes to mind? Automatic doors? Wheelchair-friendly office spaces? Onsite interpreters? All of the above fall under this category.
We’ve compiled a list of some of the most common physical accommodations you’ll need to consider for your workplace:
- Designated parking for employees [or job applicants] who would benefit from parking closer to the office
- Wheelchair ramps
- Stairlifts and elevators
- Braille keypads
- American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter
- Lactation room
- Flexible work schedules and remote work opportunities
- Ergonomic workstations
With more companies embracing hybrid and remote operations, digital accessibility has taken center stage. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can guide your organization, including the barriers to look out for when making digital content accessible.
The bottom line? It’s about creating a digitally accessible environment that allows your employees to fulfill their job responsibilities.
Naomi offered her insights about digital accessibility: “Technology has advanced so much that it now needs to include that for people with disabilities, meaning digital accessibility, usage of a computer, a screen reader, accessible hyperlinks. Things technology-wise that need to be in place for individuals in the workforce that are necessary to do our jobs.”
Let’s take a closer look at a few reasonable accommodations you could put into place to improve digital accessibility:
- Offer screen-reading software
- Provide recordings of all virtual meetings
- Offer closed-captioning during meetings
- Use inclusive language in all digital [and physical] content
- Require and provide microphone usage
- Offer audio format/delivery of all visual content
Workplace Values & Attitudes
Beyond creating a physical and digitally accessible workplace, you’ll also need to assess your company culture in an honest way. By that, we mean observing and reflecting on how you, your colleagues, and your employees view people with disabilities. To get started, we recommend using the following questions as a guide to conduct this assessment:
- Do I underestimate the ability of a job applicant with disabilities to perform the job?
- Do I (or my colleagues/employees) show an ableist attitude toward coworkers with disabilities?
- Do I use ableist language (e.g., stating a concept “falls on deaf ears,” etc.)?
- Have I offered flexible work arrangements for my employees?
- When was the last time I reviewed the company’s disability and accommodation policies?
- Have I provided my employees with opportunities for building empathy and understanding?
Why Is an Accessible Workplace Important?
Besides the legal requirement to provide an accessible workplace, doing so also shows your employees that they are seen. In other words, imagine working with a visible or invisible disability in a workplace that doesn’t recognize, much less accommodate, what you need to perform your job. How might your morale be? The short answer is – not positive.
Low employee morale can negatively impact employees’ motivation, job performance, and even your ability to retain them. Creating an accessible and inclusive work environment can positively impact your company culture. That’s because your employees (and job applicants) will see that you value their needs.
Naomi Panarella explored this on a deeper level – “[Accessibility is] important because it allows companies to broaden the talent pool out there. So many people dismiss people with disabilities just solely based on that.”
In short, show your job applicants and employees you value them by prioritizing accessibility sooner rather than later.
3 Best Practices To Follow in Creating An Accessible Workplace
Vigilantly Stay Up-To-Date on all New & Ongoing Legislation
Federal and state disability legislation is constantly evolving, and the way we work continues to change as well. So, understanding how to accommodate your employees best must start with legal compliance.
In addition to the ADA, you’ll also want to keep up with any changes made to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees specific employees paid medical leave in an instance of a severe medical issue. Or it also provides unpaid, protected leave of up to 12 weeks for other types of employees.
Here are a few recent bills and disability legislation you’ll want to keep a close eye on in the coming years:
- Disability Employment Incentive Act (S. 630 / H.R. 3765)
- Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act (H.R. 2373)
- Disabled Access Credit Expansion Act of 2021 (S. 2481 H.R. 4049)
Acknowledge that Creating Access is an Ongoing Process
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Similarly, creating an accessible workplace won’t happen overnight. Remaining open-minded and seeking feedback from your team will help you stay on top of this process.
While there are countless ways for you to approach this process, we’ve put together a few essential factors to keep in mind:
- Creating access is about achieving an inclusive environment.
- Your job applicants and employees know what they need the most – so provide a safe space where they can discuss this with you.
- Creating access and inclusion is a team effort – from HR to all employees and everyone in between.
- Don’t be afraid to enlist experts who can help with planning, training, execution, and maintenance.
- Assess and reassess your company’s policies and make appropriate changes.
Invest in Resources & Continuing Education Opportunities for Your Team
To create a more accessible and inclusive workplace, you’ll need to equip your employees with the knowledge and the resources to make that happen. Take a look at the following resources and opportunities you could use:
- Provide annual or semi-annual training and compliance opportunities.
- Plan a team-wide event where your employees can learn more about differently-abled individuals and give back at the same time. For example, Sight Unseen is a unique and effective team building event led by visually impaired facilitators that builds lasting awareness and empathy as teams navigate tasks without using vision.
- Lead by example by listening to your employees and celebrating their differences.
- Offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).
- Recruit an expert to help guide your team through this ongoing process.
- Get creative and incorporate improv to help your team explore new ways of understanding accessibility and inclusion.
Ready to Make Your Workplace More Accessible?
In 2021, the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported that 61 million adults have a disability – and 19.1% of those individuals were employed. That’s close to 12 million employees who deserve accessibility so that they can perform their best.
Giving your entire team access to diversity and inclusion programs is an effective way to reinforce that creating and maintaining an accessible and inclusive workplace is a team effort.
As you begin planning or reassessing accessibility in your workplace, we invite you to listen to our complete podcast with Naomi Panarella. Empathy is most important in this process – and, ultimately, creating a safe space and an inclusive environment for your employees with disabilties. As Naomi shared, your primary goal is to “Understand what that feels like – to have some empathy for others in that community and to be a little more empathetic to those individuals in the company.”