Tauhidah Shakir is Chief Diversity Officer at Paylocity. Views are the author's own.
The shift to remote work has resulted in improved health and productivity for workers with disabilities — many of whom previously struggled with long commutes and inaccessible office layouts.
But despite these improvements, the needs of workers with disabilities are often overlooked in the workplace. So, as companies work to ramp up their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, accessibility needs to become a much larger focus.
Some companies have recently added a "B" for "belonging" to their DEI/DEIB titles. But, in order to truly foster a sense of belonging for all employees, including those with mental or physical disabilities, accessibility must become an additional point of focus.
Building an accessible workplace takes time, but it's worth the effort. By expanding DEI to DEIA for accessibility, companies can cultivate a more welcoming workplace and reap the benefits that come when employees feel more empowered to be themselves.
An inclusive workplace can't exist without accessibility
Employers frequently stress the importance of creating environments where employees are able to bring their whole selves to work. It's a common phrase for a reason. When every employee is empowered to share ideas that are informed by their unique experiences, products, services and internal initiatives benefit from the contributions of diverse perspectives.
However, many companies struggle to create an inclusive environment for employees with mental or physical disabilities. It's not that organizations are intentionally excluding employees with disabilities. Instead, employers are falling short in creating environments where disabilities can be openly discussed.
Consider how this type of environment would empower employees with disabilities to do their best work. For example, an employee who is hard of hearing would feel comfortable asking for closed captions during an online meeting. Or an employee with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) could request that meetings be held later in the day when they are better able to focus. With a supportive environment, these employees could maximize their potential.
The journey toward an accessible working environment is never-ending. Over time, with changes to organizational understanding of disability issues, new challenges will emerge. Here are five steps to keep in mind along the organizational journey toward accessibility:
1. Increase awareness of DEIA issues
The first step toward creating an accessible workplace is education. It's difficult to create inclusive policies or help managers find accommodations for employees without a foundational knowledge of the fundamentals of accessibility and disabilities.
By keeping a pulse on how conversations surrounding disabilities evolve, business leaders will be better equipped to create an inclusive workplace. When an employee discloses to a manager that they're neurodivergent, for example, business leaders need to understand what this means and how to best support that employee.
2. Gain support from leadership
Aligning on these issues is vital for long-term success. When executive leadership and middle management are on the same page about DEIA efforts, initiatives feel genuine to employees. With a commitment from those with influence, the company will have the resources or backup to enact real organizational change.
3. Collect and protect actionable data
Before implementing accessibility initiatives, listen to employees. Soliciting information through employee survey tools can bring insight about opportunities for improvements.
During the recruitment phase, it's helpful to add options for self-disclosure of disability into applications. This addition signals to potential hires that the company invests in DEIA efforts and also provides insight into the makeup of its workforce.
Part of developing an accessible workplace involves giving employees the autonomy and choice to disclose their disability status. It's critical to handle all employee information with care and confidentiality.
Another way to promote accessibility is through employee communication apps. In the employees' bio section, alongside their name, pronouns and email address, consider adding a disability disclosure option. A subtle change like this can counter the stigmas employees may have surrounding their conditions.
4. Develop accountable educational programs
After companies gather workforce data, employees expect action. To make change happen, employers should develop initiatives that speak to the DEIA issues workers are passionate about.
An effective way to formalize accessibility programming is through committees. An accessibility committee can serve as a forum to offer support to employees with disabilities as well as an opportunity to brainstorm company-wide initiatives. By including employees from different departments, employers create accessibility advocates who champion the cause throughout the organization.
Beyond employees with disabilities, it's important to give employees without disabilities a comprehensive understanding of accessibility issues. When an employee needs an accommodation, every person on their team needs to be committed to adhering to the arrangement. Only through solidarity can employees with disabilities feel supported at work.
5. Evaluate programming
Developing an accessible environment requires constant evaluation of the way new initiatives are received, and accessibility is a new area of focus for many organizations, so have patience with these organizational initiatives.
Ask employees how valuable they found the experience. Employee survey tools can standardize the evaluation process and help gather detailed feedback.
Accessibility is the key to a fully realized workplace
An accessible workplace doesn't magically happen by adding an "A" to DEI. That "A" has to be earned by listening to employees, taking action and adjusting as needed.
Innovation may be hiding within employees who don't feel comfortable speaking up. Disability inclusion means that employees don't leave their identities at the door. Instead, they bring their whole selves to work, and use their diverse experiences and perspectives to develop products and services that better resonate with the clients and customers.