As organizations become increasingly focused on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, it’s important to remember that accessibility should also be an essential part of the conversation. Approximately one in six people (~135 million) in Europe have at least one disability. Realistically, the number is significantly higher given that only the reported permanent disabilities are accounted for and various countries treat and report disabilities differently. By 2050 the number of people with disabilities is expected to double.
What is accessibility?
Accessibility is the ability for all people to access, navigate, and use the environments equally, including physical and digital spaces. There is a myth that accessible workplaces, services, and content are required only by disabled people. However, absolutely everyone can benefit from them. The focus of accessibility is to ensure that no one gets left out.
Motor or sensory impairments are perhaps the most well-known type of disability, but there are many others that are equally important to consider. For example, people with visual impairments may have complete vision loss, permanent difficulty with vision, or inability to distinguish certain colours. Individuals with hearing loss may have some degree of hearing, while others can be completely deaf. Motor disabilities include, for example, congenital conditions such as cerebral palsy and acquired disabilities such as arthritis, spinal cord injury, tremors, or carpal tunnel syndrome.
Cognitive disabilities represent the largest group of impairments; it includes learning difficulties, memory problems, attention deficit, problem-solving issues, and problems with verbal and visual comprehension. ADHD, autism, and dyslexia are examples of coginitive disabilities. The spectrum of cognitive disabilities is enormously broad, and the severity differs from person to person.
Disabilities are diverse and can impact individuals in various ways. Some disabilities may not be immediately visible and can be difficult to identify. Additionally, it is important to recognize that disabilities are not always permanent. Many individuals may experience temporary disabilities due to injuries, illnesses, or situational disabilities. People with disabilities constitute the largest minority group and it is important to remember that any of us can potentially belong to it.
Benefits of accessibility
Accessibility in the workplace is crucial as it enables employees with disabilities to fully participate in the workforce. This not only improves their job performance but also increases productivity and overall performance of the organization. Studies show that companies with inclusive disability policies have 30% higher profit margins and lower staff turnover than other similar organizations.
“Disability is a strength rather than a weakness; it brings resilience, creativity, problem-solving, and a new perspective to life and work. Embracing diversity and inclusion fuels progress and success for the company. The friction that may arise as a result of diverse perspectives, is essential for driving innovation and growth in a modern and competitive business environment.” – Henning Starholm Steen, Inclusion Manager and Neurodiversity Advocate, Tietoevry
Furthermore, by making workplaces more accessible, organizations can also improve their reputation and demonstrate their commitment to equity and inclusion. This can help to improve the organization’s public image and attract a wider pool of employees, customers, clients, and other stakeholders.
Concealed disabilities make accessibility a must-have
It is common for people to hide their disabilities in the workplace. One reason may be a fear of discrimination or stigma. They worry that their colleagues or employer will view them differently or treat them unfairly if they reveal their disability. Often disabled people do not want to be considered victims or heroes, and instead they would like to be treated equally as any other employee in the company.
Another reason people hide their disability or hesitate to apply for a job is a lack of accommodations or support. They may feel that their workplace is not equipped to understand their needs, or they may be concerned that they will be seen as a burden if they ask for accommodations.
Finally, some people with disabilities may simply be private about their condition and prefer not to disclose it to others. This may be due to personal preference or a desire to avoid being defined by their disability.
Regardless of the reason, it is essential for employers and colleagues to be understanding and supportive of disabled people. This includes being open to discussing accommodations and ensuring that the workplace is inclusive and accessible for all employees.
Tangible ways to promote accessibility
In order to create a truly inclusive workplace, organizations must prioritise accessibility. This means going beyond providing ramps and wheelchair-accessible restrooms and taking a holistic approach to ensuring that all employees can fully engage and contribute in the workplace.
So, what can organizations do to make their workplaces more accessible? Here are some steps that they can take:
Create an inclusive culture: Organizations can create an inclusive culture by promoting equal opportunities and making sure that all employees are treated with respect and dignity. This can involve providing training on disability awareness and inclusion, as well as promoting open and honest communication. Learning about different disabilities and their needs is the key to providing proper accommodation and support.
“The first step would be changing the attitude of the employees in the company. By human nature, we try to avoid things we do not know about; it scares us, and so we might postpone them. Thus, changing the attitudes, being curious, educating ourselves and raising awareness would be the first step towards understanding the unqiue needs of different people.” – Henning Starholm Steen
Conduct an accessibility audit: Another step in making a workplace more accessible is to identify any potential barriers or challenges that employees with disabilities may face. This can be done through an accessibility audit, which involves examining the physical environment, technology, and policies to identify areas for improvement.
Provide accommodations: Once potential barriers have been identified, organizations can take steps to provide accommodations that will help employees with disabilities to perform their jobs. This can include things like providing assistive technology, modifying the physical environment, and offering flexible work arrangements.
“Remote work can really boost performance for e.g. individuals with autism who often need social breaks and experience mental exhaustion from social interactions. Moreover, requiring open cameras during meetings can be overwhelming for individuals with autism, while daily office attendance can be draining for those with motor disabilities, such as those in wheelchairs.” – Henning Starholm Steen
Improve the recruitment process: An inclusive recruitment process actively seeks and welcomes diverse candidates, and eliminates any biases and barriers to ensure equal opportunities for all. Inaccessible platforms and exclusive language used in the recruitment process may drive away a lot of qualified applicants. Thus consider changing the way how interviews are conducted, offering more flexibility with the communications and assignments, and providing alternative format materials can make applicants feel more comfortable.
“The recruitment process can be very overwhelming, especially for neurodivergent people. In our unit, we changed the word “interview” to “chat” to take away pressure from the situation. Another good idea would be establishing a trial period where applicants can demonstrate their true skills, as Microsoft does within their inclusive recruitment process.” – Henning Starholm Steen
Keeping up the momentum
By prioritizing accessibility in the workplace, organizations can create an inclusive environment where all employees can thrive and contribute. It’s time for accessibility to be given the attention it deserves in the conversation about diversity and inclusion.
For more resources on accessibility, check out:
Disability Sensitivity Training Video
Disability and work: Let’s stop wasting talent
Social Disability Model Animation
Why workplace disability inclusion matters now more than ever
Employment and disability in Europe Union
Making an impactful change with DEI
For more general DEI services like trainings, leadership coaching, e-learning, DEI surveys, and consulting packages, check out Inkusiiv’s services.
Authors & interviewees
Nea Höynälä is a Communications and Marketing Lead and DEI Specialist at Inklusiiv. With almost a decade of experience, she uses storytelling and content creation to raise awareness for DEI topics, providing valuable insights on how to create inclusive workplaces.
Nadia Törnroos is an experienced Software Engineer and Certified Accessibility Specialist at Tietoevry, deeply passionate about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), advocating for human rights, technical solutions, and business opportunities for people with disabilities.
Henning Starholm Steen is an Inclusion Enthusiast and Neurodiversity Advocate that has for over 10 years been working with autism at the IT-corporation Tietoevry. He has a passion for talking loudly about tapping into the enormous potential within the minds and brains of the neurodiverse population, both within his own company and society in general.