Nearly 55 million people of working age in the US have a disability or a health condition. Historically, people with disabilities have an employment rate lower than people without disabilities, but there are simple and compelling reasons to reduce this employment gap.
Not only is providing equal opportunities clearly the right (and legally required) thing to do, employing a wider range of people is also good for business since your company's workforce better reflects the diversity of your customers. Encouraging applications from people who are disabled increases the number of high-quality team members available and helps bring additional skills to the business – as well as potentially large savings.
There are many things employers and employees can do to help improve inclusivity in their working environment, and below we run through some of the most effective ways to make employment accessible for all.
Employers must make what are known as "reasonable accommodation" to support employees with disabilities, which might include:
- changes to the employee's working pattern, e.g. later starts or flextime
- making physical alterations to their place of work, e.g. widening of doorways to allow wheelchair access
- modifying or acquiring equipment, e.g. text phones for the deaf or hard of hearing
Employees can also assist colleagues who are disabled by making small changes to their working style, for example, providing meeting notes in advance in an electronic format, or avoiding noisy environments when discussing tasks.
Some adjustments don't require tangible objects or products but rather a change in attitude and approach. Rather than asking, "What support do you need?", it's more constructive to ask employees whether there are any potential barriers to them succeeding and, if they flag anything, ask what alternatives would work best for them. More often than not, people with disabilities will know what tools are helpful and will support them best in their role so make sure to consult them before putting anything in place for them.
Additionally, think about what is known as "job carving". Let's take the example of someone who suffers from anxiety who applies for a role which involves a small amount of public speaking and giving presentations. Apart from in this area, they're a fantastic candidate and would be a real asset to the company. Consider whether this absolutely must be one of their duties or whether someone else could do this, and try to restructure the team's responsibilities accordingly.
There's a whole host of ways to make the physical environment more accessible, and these alterations don't just benefit people with disabilities.
Installing ramps and automatic doors are obvious ways to make buildings more accessible, but also ensuring that there's appropriate parking, elevators with Braille buttons and audio announcements, and accessible meeting rooms and conference halls are also important considerations when assessing the physical working environment.
Making small adjustments to ensure work areas are spacious, accessible, well signed and well lit can make a huge difference for people with limited mobility, visual or hearing impairments, and these changes can actually be useful to everyone.
Increasingly, technology – more specifically, assistive technology and accessible technology – is being used to provide support at work to those who need it.
So what is assistive technology, and how does it differ from accessible technology? Assistive technology is technology that's been specifically designed to help people with disabilities perform a task, e.g screen readers which help people with disabilities read electronic material, or live captioning which enables deaf employees in the workplace to participate in conference calls.
Technology that has been designed to cater to the needs of lots of different users is known as accessible technology, e.g. software with built-in customizable features so that users can tailor it to their specific needs.
This approach is at the core of the concept of Universal Design, according to which software, hardware, facilities, equipment – in short, everything – is created with the needs of all potential users in mind from the very beginning. Why spend extra money (often substantial amounts) adapting an existing product to account for one particular requirement when you can build this in from the outset for little or no extra cost?
As you'll be aware, not all disabilities are visible. Technology aimed at supporting people with dyslexia (dictation software, or mind mapping tools for people who think more visually) and mental health issues (tools to help with organisation and overcoming anxiety) is widely available, often for free.
Where technology or services are not available free of charge, government funding is often available to cover the cost, meaning companies aren't faced with a financial disincentive to employ a disabled candidate or support a disabled employee.