A leader’s duty to accessibility

It can be hard to talk about disability and accessibility without perhaps being overwhelmed by the various intersections and varieties those terms encompass. What is accessible for one disabled employee might not cut it for another. While accessibility and disability might look different to each employee, client, or customer you encounter, the benefits to prioritizing their health and safety will positively impact your work environment for everyone.

Many workers with a disability function every day in an environment that was not designed for them. They do their work, meet their deadlines, and bring value to many businesses despite many social and structural obstacles set before them. However, the physical and emotional labor that goes into navigating an abled-centric world is exhausting, and can both negatively impact work and exacerbate disability. In order to prevent burnout, ableism, and continued hardship for your disabled employees, it is important to look beyond the legally mandated guidelines for accessibility, and truly focus on equity for individual employees as well as the culture of your workplace as a whole.

As a leader, it’s important that you look discrimination directly in the eye and make a concerted effort to face it down. Unfortunately, it’s not always so easy to see discrimination when it’s not happening directly to us, and while the culture surrounding workplace discrimination is gradually changing, it can still be extremely daunting for someone experiencing discrimination in any form to speak up. So how can you be proactive in order to best protect your employees?

RightHear, a company that focuses on accessibility tools and advocacy, offers advice to employers looking to make their environment more accessible. Two of their central suggestions are to “get educated” and “work as a team.” This might include taking sensitivity training, doing research, and simply being proactive about what might be a potential obstacle to a disabled coworker, rather than putting the burden of education on that coworker.

How can you make sure that you’re being accommodating to all your employees, regardless of whether or not they live with a disability? First, you can take the time to simply examine the layout of your building. Where might hallways be too narrow, or furniture be obstructive, to an employee who uses a mobility aid? Is your equipment usable by employees who are vision or hearing impaired? Is your sick day policy practical for employees with mental illness? You can undertake this inventory of your environment and company culture with the collaboration of your whole workforce.

Reconsider the concept of “normal” in the workplace:

Annika Konrad is a disability researcher and advocate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In a 2018 publication in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, Konrad said, “all professionals need to actively question what has been assumed as ‘normal’ in workplaces and view ability as a multifaceted, embodied quality that manifests itself in different forms in different bodies…” In other words, ability looks different for everyone, and your workplace culture should reflect the needs and strengths of the people who bring it to life, rather than normative, often ableist, expectations.

An emphasis on community learning and a cultural shift towards accessibility in your workplace will be healthier for all your employees, not just the ones who have visible or disclosed disabilities. Compassion, empathy, and respect are integral values in a teamwork environment, as well as in practicing accessibility. This won’t only assist you in hiring the best person for the job, but it is also important in order retain your talented employees. Practicing proper accessibility in your workplace is not just beneficial, but vital to the health of your business.