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Disability Inclusion In the Digital Workspace: An Actionable Guide

It could be morning, evening, or in the middle of the night, but the attacks on my head come like a whip. All of a sudden lights are searing, thoughts are interfering, and the sound of a small bird chirping could send me spiraling. It feels as if my brain is actually throbbing inside my head, pushing on my skull. Experiences like this happen to 4 million adults in the U.S., who when lucky, are actually diagnosed with chronic migraines. Some people may think migraines are “just a headache” but it’s extremely dihabiliating not only from a physical stand-point, but a mental one. I feel useless. I feel weary of even mentioning it to colleagues sometimes because of fear of seeming weak or incapable.

Chronic migraines are not always considered a “disability,” but it is disabling.

Many people live with some chronic pain or fatigue that can affect their work. And a whopping 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. have a diagnosed disability. Long story short, a lot of people live with some sort of condition that affects their work, and yet people aren’t as aware about it, or even talk about it.

The good news is, the increasingly digital world is creating opportunities for many to work under more flexible conditions, especially the untapped market of eligible-working people with disabilities.

The GDP could get a boost up to $25 billion if just 1 percent more of persons with disabilities joined the U.S. labor force. Wow!

Unfortunately, despite the strength of the U.S. labor market, persons with disabilities are still strikingly under-employed. 

Only 29 percent of working age Americans with disabilities participate in the workforce, compared with 75 percent of Americans without a disability. 

But now, recent rapid digitization of the workforce may help change that.

Karen Thomas, founder of Conscious Crafties, ​​an online marketplace, membership and support community for talented entrepreneurs living with disabilities, said her community became quite excited about the workplace changes towards digitization and flexibility.

Karen Thomas, founder of Conscious Crafties

“With the whole world demanding a digital workplace, our untapped talent could become more recognized - not just for those with conditions like chronic fatigue but those who have limited mobility as well!” Karen said. “It sounds so simple but what everyone wants to do is feel like they are making a difference. When people get diagnosed with a disability, alongside likely losing their career, they lose their sense of purpose.”

A more inclusive digital workplace isn’t just better for people with diagnosed disabilities, but EVERYONE.

Like those millions of people living with chronic conditions, or those who have “invisible disabilities,” that aren’t obvious to those around them. Digital is where the world is heading anyway.

So, there’s no excuse NOT to create a more digitally accessible workplace. But what is digital accessibility exactly?

Digital accessibility allows people of all lifestyles to use workplace tech independently, and is achieved through a combination of inclusive design, testing, policy, and of course, fostering a culture that recognizes accessibility is important. 

And more organizations are discovering that employing persons with disabilities is not as expensive or challenging as is often assumed – in-fact, it can drive company success.

Digital Accessibility and Disability Inclusion Drives Company Success

Research from Accenture, in partnership with Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), reveals that companies that support more persons with disabilities outperform their peers.

Picture Credit: Disability:IN. Illustrations by Jordan Nicholson.

“Persons with disabilities present business and industry with unique opportunities in labor-force diversity and corporate culture, and they’re a large consumer market eager to know which businesses authentically support their goals and dreams. Leading companies are accelerating disability inclusion as the next frontier of corporate social responsibility and mission-driven investing.”

Ted Kennedy, Jr., Disabilities Rights Attorney, Connecticut State Senator and Board Chair, American Association of People with Disabilities

Beyond revenue, there are countless other benefits to building an inclusive environment, especially for people with disabilities:

  1. Accelerated Innovation: “People with disabilities tend to be some of the most creative, innovative and, quite frankly, most loyal employees. A person with a disability wakes up every day thinking about being innovative – that is a skill set. That ability to problem solve is innate to them. Our training programs quickly went from philanthropy to skill search.” – David Casey, VP, Workforce Strategies & Chief Diversity Officer CVS Health
  2. Improved Shareholder Value: Regulators and the investor community increasingly monitor company culture and diversity. Disability inclusion is a key component of these metrics, and it’s mandatory to report on them in the U.S.
  3. Increased Productivity: Work environments that are more inclusive of persons with disabilities often see improved productivity levels
    For example, Microsoft has built a successful disability hiring program specific to people on the Autism spectrum and other neurological conditions.
  4. Enhanced Reputation: Companies that adopt inclusive marketing and advertising efforts tend to stand out from the competition.

A survey undertaken by the National Business and Disability Council found that 66 percent of consumers will purchase goods and services from a business that features persons with disabilities in their advertising, while 78 percent will purchase goods and services from a business that takes steps to ensure easy access for individuals with disabilities at their physical locations.

3 Ways to Design a Better Workplace For All Through Disability Inclusivity

Being honest about where you stand as a company can be hard as we face the biases that we often unintentionally apply to our workplace processes. But taking accountability for our past and moving forward to creating a more digitally accessible space is a crucial first step in creating an inclusive culture for your employers.

1. Strategize Using an “Equity” Approach, not a “Rescue” Approach in Learning Technology

Even the best-intentioned people can make the mistake of creating an inclusive space by essentially coddling people with disabilities, sometimes even giving them less meaningful tasks when they are capable of more.  

Don’t assume someone can’t do something technically or needs help with a new digital tool just because they have a disability. Hold your employees with disabilities to the same rules and standards as you would anybody else. Not doing so will deprive you team of crucial growth opportunities.

“When I got sick I started getting jobs that weren’t critical, jobs I had before because I was the ‘sick girl’,” Karen said. “It was extremely demotivating.”

Karen Thomas

For example, Karen does high level work in her projects but lets her colleagues know that she cannot work before 11:00 p.m., when she “de-zombies” herself. The work gets done, just at a later time.

Picture Credit: Disability:IN.

2. Broaden Your View of Accessibility & Set Associative Goals

It’s important to embrace technology, but don’t take a purely automated, technology-driven solution to accessibility. Creating a truly accessible workplace includes setting goals that integrate culture, processes, and technology.

Some questions you can use to start brainstorming accessibility goals are:

Of course, reevaluating your technological processes to become accessible are also a must – from video conferencing, to file sharing.

6 TIPS TO MAKE YOUR VIDEO CALLS AND CONFERENCES MORE INCLUSIVE:

I also highly recommend you also check out this resource by Rooted in Rights which has more in-depth checklists about hosting events virtually in a more accessible way.

3. Include Persons with Disabilities Early On, Not After The Fact

It goes without saying that creating an open dialogue with current team members is one of the best ways to kickstart or scale an inclusion strategy. 

And remember – being curious and unsure is perfectly fine, as long as that uncertainty is channeled in the form of a question as opposed to a presumptive statement.

“I love when employers give the opportunity to tell my story,” Karen said. “A lot of people skirt around the topic because everyone is worried about saying the wrong thing. In-fact, I think everyone in the workplace should be asked what their employers can do to support the way they work in the first place.”

Karen Thomas

Being Mindful of Language for Persons with Disability: 

  1. Say “People with Disabilities” not “Disabled People” 
  2. Be wary of implying that people with disabilities deserve to be pitied by using words like “suffering from” or “victim of..”
  3. Never use “normal” as a contrast.

But again, when in doubt, just ask! If there’s anything to take away from this article, it’s that EVERYONE has challenges when it comes to the workplace and creating an inclusive space for those with disabilities will only make you stronger and more accessible for all.

About the Author

Sarah Bloodworth

Sarah Bloodworth

Sarah Bloodworth is a writer and sustainability & culture specialist located in Austin, Texas. She studied Journalism and Environmental Science At The University of Texas at Austin and partly at the University of Sheffield in the UK. She worked as a freelance writer for several years, eventually founding my own LLC where she helped mission-driven organisations understand and connect with their audiences through clear, impactful communications. She now works at Flex International, a global manufacturing partner dedicated to creating products that improve people’s lives and make the world a better place. Her specialties include writing/editing, research, customer relations, community-building, and data. The views Sarah expresses are her’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Flex.

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