You want a diverse team—where people from all different backgrounds and experiences can come together to share ideas and do awesome work for your company.
However, it’s far too easy to limit your definition of diversity and only think about the frequently-cited things like gender, race, and sexual orientation.
True diversity extends way beyond those categories. Yet, when mapping out their diversity and inclusion strategies, many employers often overlook one specific group: people with disabilities—which means creating an accessible workplace is often overlooked too.
Disability Isn’t a Disadvantage
Extending your efforts to support your workers who have disabilities is not only the right thing to do, but it also can mean big things for your organization—quite literally.
One report put together by management consulting company Accenture concluded that companies who excel at disability inclusion outperformed their peers. Between 2015 and 2018 these organizations had, on average, 28% higher revenue, 30% higher economic profit margins, and double the net income compared to other companies.
These sorts of findings aren’t limited to one study, either. A separate report from the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which is funded by a contract from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), found that 89% of employers who embraced disability as part of their overall talent strategy experienced an increase in employee retention. Another 72% of employers saw an increase in employee productivity, and 46% witnessed an improvement in employee safety.
It’s further proof that there are numerous benefits associated with a truly diverse team. But it’s important to recognize the other important piece of the puzzle: inclusion.
If and when you have those with disabilities on your team or even visiting your office (such as contractors, clients, or even prospective employees), you need to foster an environment where they feel acknowledged, safe, supported, and—most importantly—that their success and ability to do their job well isn’t limited by their disability.
Much like any other effort to be more inclusive, that can require some changes—ranging from small to significant—within your workplace. Let’s dig into five different ways you can make your office more accessible to employees with disabilities.
1. Start With Your Immediate Need
The end goal is for your workplace to be accessible to absolutely everyone. That’s a great objective, but it can also mean that you bite off more than you can chew. Rather than starting with a total overhaul, focus on your legally-mandated, immediate need.
The Americans With Disabilities Act requires that you provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities who are employees or applicants for employment.
For example, do you have someone joining your team who has a certain disability—such an incoming employee who’s visually impaired?
Start your accessibility efforts there. It not only makes the process more manageable, but you’ll also get the most relevant changes accomplished right away.
What sort of changes should you think about making? Even smaller additions can make a large difference, such as:
- Providing screen reader technologies
- Hanging braille signage around the office
- Installing differently-textured floor mats that distinguish between areas of the office, so the employee can more easily navigate
- Instituting a company-wide rule that any graphs or other images should include alt text (so they can be understood by screen reader software)
And of course, if the employee has a guide dog or some other type of aid that they rely on in their everyday life, you’ll also need to accommodate them bringing that tool to the office. As you can see in the video at the top of this article, that’s exactly what KinderCare does for Betty, an Instructional Support Content Developer, and her dog, Veron—who she says quickly became everybody’s favorite co-worker.
None of these changes are a major undertaking, but they go a long way in making your office safer and more accessible for your employees—and proving your dedication to creating a more inclusive environment for everyone.
2. Enlist Expert Insights
If you’re looking for an expert opinion on how you can make your office even more inclusive and disability-friendly beyond the immediate needs of your existing or incoming employees, there are plenty of firms and organizations that specialize in accessibility that you can hire.
However, you might have all of the resources you need right under your own roof. Rely on your existing employees—particularly those who have disabilities—to enlighten you about what other types of issues could be resolved or improved in your office.
The focus here should be on things that don’t necessarily directly impede their ability to do their jobs (since you legally should have already accommodated those needs), but certainly make things more difficult for them.
An employee who uses a wheelchair might appreciate the ramps you’ve installed and the changes you’ve made to allow for wider passageways between desks.
But they might also clue you in on the fact that your office doors are heavy and challenging to navigate through in a wheelchair—and suggest that you should look into automatic openers or hinges that allow for easier opening.
You don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s probably not something you would inherently think about if you aren’t a wheelchair user yourself.
Don’t hesitate to enlist the help of some experts (whether professionals or not) to poke holes in your current workspace and call attention to potential problem areas.
3. Go Beyond Your Physical Space
When you hear the term “accessible workspace,” it’s easy to think about only the physical attributes. But an environment that’s truly inclusive of those with disabilities extends beyond your furniture and layout.
For example, assistive technologies can empower your employees to be more efficient and effective with their work. This can include things like:
- Screen readers
- Closed captioning
- Enlarged keyboards
- Voice recognition programs
- Screen enlargement applications
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of the different tools and technologies that are available, it’s a good place to start if you’re thinking about making some changes to increase accessibility.
Even beyond employees with visible or disclosed disabilities, many people in your office could benefit from these types of assistive technologies—even if they don’t identify as disabled.
For example, an older employee might appreciate a screen enlargement application or someone who feels held back by their own slow typing speeds could become more efficient with a voice recognition program.
Additionally, other benefits—like flexible scheduling, work from home accommodations, and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)—can ensure that these employees have plenty of options available to them.
4. Invest in Employee Education and Training
Accommodating employees with disabilities isn’t as simple as making a few changes and then watching as everything falls into place. Cultivating an inclusive atmosphere requires getting every single one of your employees on board.
Specifically, this means providing adequate training so all employees know what they can do to contribute to a better work environment for everyone.
This type of training should be part of your new employee onboarding process, where you can cover important best practices to keep in mind like:
- Chairs should be pushed in when meetings are finished in conference rooms, so disabled people can easily navigate in the space
- The front seats of a presentation should be reserved for any employees who are deaf or hard of hearing and rely on lip reading
- Presentation slides should be sent out to attendees ahead of the presentation, so they have time to review and understand the information (particularly if they rely on a screen reader or enlarged font)
Even with this level of education, your employees will likely still forget things and make some mistakes (and that’s all right—nobody’s perfect!).
However, making the commitment to get everyone on the same page about how they can best support each other goes a long way in encouraging inclusivity and a team-centered environment.
5. Understand That You’ll Never Be “Done”
You had the important conversations, made the necessary adjustments, and put in the time to educate your entire team about how they can better support any team members with disabilities. That’s it—you’re done, right?
Not exactly. You’ve definitely made some progress in making your workplace more accessible, but here’s the thing: You’ll never actually be finished with the process.
New technologies will be introduced that are worth exploring, or new employees will join your team (and potentially require different accommodations).
As with any other inclusion strategy that you put into place in your office, this isn’t a box that you can check and then count as an accomplishment. It’s an ever-evolving process that requires constant evaluation and conscious effort.
True Inclusivity Requires an Accessible Workplace
You can’t expect to reap the benefits of having a diverse team if you aren’t equipped with a work environment and a culture that adequately supports all types of people.
Fortunately, you can make changes to ensure that your workplace is accessible for everyone—including those with disabilities.
Of course, this isn't a comprehensive guide to providing the right level of accommodations for every type of disability that exists. Here are some other resources you can reference and learn from:
- An Overview of the Americans With Disabilities Act
- Job Accommodation Network Workplace Accommodation Toolkit
- United States Access Board Guide to the ADA Standards
With these resources and the tips above, you’ll take steps in the right direction when it comes to fostering a culture where everyone is able to adequately handle the responsibilities of their positions—all while feeling equally valued and supported.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author