Creating a truly inclusive environment starts with ensuring workplace accessibility. As HR professionals and managers, it's essential to prioritize an accessible workplace to foster a diverse and productive team. In a Forbes article titled, “On The Pandemic And Accessibility,” Steven Aquino powerfully notes that, “To have one’s lives so utterly disrupted and summarily scrabble to adapt is not dissimilar to the challenges people with disabilities face every single day -- even before ‘Covid-19’ became an indelible part of the American vernacular.”

In this blog, we'll explore practical strategies and provide a comprehensive accessibility checklist to help you identify and address accessibility issues. Let's get started!

What does accessibility mean in the workplace?

When we define accessibility in the workplace, we must consider the whole spectrum of the concept. Not just to think about employees with certain levels of accessibility issues. Therefore, workplace accessibility encompasses more than just physical access; it includes digital and attitudinal aspects that collectively create an inclusive environment.

To define accessibility in the workplace broadly, it means ensuring that all employees, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, can fully participate and thrive in their roles. Here you have a detailed explanation of each aspect:

  • Digital Accessibility: Ensuring that digital tools and resources are usable by everyone is a key component of workplace accessibility. This means that software, websites, and online training materials must be designed to be accessible to people with disabilities, including those who use screen readers or other assistive technologies.
  • Attitudinal Accessibility: Fostering an inclusive culture is crucial. Disability-friendly employers actively work to eliminate biases and misconceptions about disabilities. This involves training staff to understand and respect the diverse needs of their colleagues and promoting a workplace culture that values inclusivity.

How Employers Can Assess Current Accessibility

Developing an accessible workplace begins with a thorough assessment of your current environment. By following a step-by-step approach, employers can identify and address accessibility issues, ensuring compliance with accessibility standards and fostering a barrier-free, inclusive workplace. Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to assess workplace accessibility:

1. Conduct an Audit

Start with a comprehensive workplace accessibility audit. This involves reviewing all aspects of physical and digital accessibility:

  • Physical Accessibility: Examine the physical layout for barrier-free access, including ramps, elevators, accessible restrooms, and ergonomic workstations. Address parking discrimination at work by ensuring accessible parking spaces are available and clearly marked.
  • Digital Accessibility: Evaluate digital tools and resources to ensure they meet accessibility standards. Use assistive technology to test your website, software, and online platforms for usability by people with disabilities.

2. Use Surveys

Gathering feedback directly from employees can provide valuable insights into accessibility issues and areas for improvement:

  • Employee Surveys: Distribute surveys to understand employees' experiences with physical and digital accessibility at work. Include questions about accommodations, ergonomic needs, and examples of accessibility in the workplace.
  • Anonymous Feedback: Encourage anonymous feedback to ensure employees feel comfortable sharing their honest experiences and suggestions.

3. Consult Experts

Consulting with accessibility experts can help ensure a thorough and accurate assessment:

  • Accessibility Consultants: Hire professionals who specialize in accessibility at work to conduct detailed assessments and provide recommendations.
  • Legal Advisors: Ensure compliance with accessibility standards and equal opportunity regulations by consulting legal experts familiar with workplace accessibility laws.
  • Assistive Technology Specialists: Work with specialists to evaluate the effectiveness of current assistive technologies and identify areas for improvement.

Several tools and resources can aid in the assessment process:

  • Workplace Accessibility Checklist: Use a comprehensive checklist to systematically evaluate all aspects of accessibility, from physical infrastructure to digital tools. For example: Are entrances and exits wheelchair accessible? Are hallways and common areas free of obstacles?
  • Ergonomic Assessment Tools: Utilize ergonomic assessment tools to analyze workstations and identify necessary adjustments. Tools like the Rapid Entire Body Assessment (REBA) or Rapid Upper Limb Assessment (RULA) can analyze postures and provide risk scores.
  • Universal Design Principles: Universal design principles focus on creating environments that are usable by all people, regardless of their abilities, without the need for adaptation. Examples include: Automatic doors that are accessible to everyone, and information available in multiple formats (text, audio, visual) to accommodate different preferences and needs.
  • Accessibility Standards Guides: Refer to guides and standards such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the BS 8300 for detailed requirements and best practices.

Benefits of Accessibility in the Workplace

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. By making workplaces accessible, companies can enjoy many advantages on different levels. Here, we discuss these benefits and some case studies.

  • Increased Productivity: When employees have the tools and accommodations they need, they can focus better and complete their work more effectively. Cisco has implemented numerous initiatives to promote accessibility, such as the Connected Disability Awareness Network, which supports employees with disabilities.
  • Broader Talent Pool: By removing barriers to employment, organizations can tap into a diverse talent pool with unique perspectives and skills. For example, Fidelity's 'Enable' Disability Employee Resource Group (ERG) focuses on creating an inclusive workspace for people with disabilities. They have implemented various accessibility improvements, such as making washrooms, desks, and computer equipment more accessible, and allowing flexible work hours.
  • Enhanced Employee Retention: Accessibility improvements demonstrate a commitment to employee well-being, which can lead to higher job satisfaction and loyalty. A great example is Accenture's commitment to disability inclusion. Their inclusive practices include accessible technology and support systems, which help retain valuable employees and reduce turnover costs.
  • Positive Corporate Image: An accessible workplace signals that an organization values diversity and inclusion, enhancing its reputation among customers, partners, and the broader community. Delta Air Lines has established an Advisory Board on Disability to shape company policies and practices surrounding accessibility; it has strengthened Delta's brand and customer loyalty​.

Common Workplace Accessibility Challenges

As many of us transitioned to working from home, access to Zoom, Slack, and other forms of communication became daily aspects of the workplace environment. Even schools began utilizing tools like Google Meets and a whole host of online learning platforms. So, what does accessibility look like in the virtual world? Let’s consider this set of user characteristics that UW-Madison Information Technology put out in order to shed light on web accessibility.

Individuals with:

  • Blindness: Individuals who are blind use either audible output or tactile output. For reading the printed page, they use scanners with optical recognition (OCR) that can read printed material and store it electronically to be read by a screen reader. Some videos may need to include an audio description to describe any actions not described by the narrators or speakers in the video.
  • Colorblindness: Individuals with colorblindness have difficulty seeing the contrast between background and foreground colors and may be unable to see certain colors or color combinations especially if color alone is used to convey information.
  • Cognitive disabilities: Individuals with learning disabilities such as dyslexia may also use audible output, along with software that highlights words or phrases as they’re read aloud using synthesized speech.
  • Low vision: Individuals with low vision may use screen magnification software that allows them to zoom into all or a portion of the visual screen. Large monitors and anti-glare screens, color and contrast adjustments, speech output systems and scanners with optical character recognition are also used to navigate web and print media. Many others with less-than-perfect eyesight may enlarge the font on websites using standard browser functions, such as Ctrl + in Windows browsers or Command + in Mac browsers.
  • A physical disability: Individuals with physical disabilities that affect their use of hands may be unable to use a mouse, and instead may rely exclusively on the keyboard or use assistive technologies such as speech recognition, head pointers, mouth sticks, or eye-gaze tracking systems.
  • Hearing disabilities: Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing are unable to access audio content, so video needs to be captioned and audio needs to be transcribed.
  • The need of using a mobile device: Individuals who are accessing the web using a compact mobile device such as a phone face accessibility barriers, just like individuals with disabilities do. They’re using a small screen and may need to zoom in or increase the font size, and they are likely to be using a touch interface rather than a mouse.
  • Limited bandwidth: Individuals may be on slow Internet connections if they’re located in a rural area or lack the financial resources to access high-speed Internet. These users benefit from pages that load quickly and transcripts for videos.

How to Develop a More Accessible Workplace

AreaExamples of ActionsAdditional ResourcesPhysical WorkplaceInstall ramps and automatic doors to ensure wheelchair accessibility.Enhances physical well-being and security.Technological WorkplaceUse WCAG-compliant software to ensure accessibility for all users.Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)Workplace AttitudesProvide regular training on diversity, inclusion, and accessibility.Disability Training Programs, HR PoliciesReasonable AdjustmentsOffer flexible working hours and remote work options as needed.ADA Compliance Guidelines, Flexible Work Policies

Creating a more accessible workplace involves comprehensive changes across various areas to ensure inclusivity and support for all employees. Here are key tips to develop a more accessible workplace, broken down into four essential areas:

1. Physical Workplace

Make sure to implement universal design principles to make spaces usable by everyone, regardless of ability. And regularly review and update the physical layout to accommodate changing needs and new employees.

✔️ Install ramps and automatic doors to ensure wheelchair accessibility.

✔️ Equip restrooms with accessible features like grab bars and ample maneuvering space.

✔️ Provide adjustable desks and ergonomic chairs for comfort and flexibility.

✔️ Ensure clear pathways and accessible common areas for easy navigation.

✔️ Implement universal design principles for inclusivity in all physical spaces.

2. Technological Workplace

Conduct regular audits of digital tools to identify and fix accessibility issues. Try to involve employees with disabilities in testing and providing feedback on digital tools and resources.

✔️ Use WCAG-compliant software to ensure accessibility for all users.

✔️ Provide assistive technologies like screen readers and voice recognition software.

✔️ Regularly train employees on the use of accessibility features in digital tools.

✔️ Conduct regular audits to identify and fix digital accessibility issues.

✔️ Involve employees with disabilities in testing and feedback for digital tools.

3. Workplace Attitudes

Create awareness campaigns to educate staff about disabilities and the importance of accessibility. Encourage open communication and feedback from employees about their needs and experiences.

✔️ Provide regular training on diversity, inclusion, and accessibility.

✔️ Establish ERGs focused on disability inclusion for support and feedback.

✔️ Ensure visible leadership commitment to accessibility and inclusion.

✔️ Create awareness campaigns to educate staff about disabilities and accessibility.

✔️ Encourage open communication and feedback from employees about their needs.

4. Reasonable Adjustments

Regularly review accommodation requests and ensure they are addressed promptly and effectively. Develop clear policies and procedures for requesting and implementing accommodations.

✔️ Offer flexible working hours and remote work options as needed.

✔️ Provide customized accommodations like ergonomic furniture and modified equipment.

✔️ Establish a confidential process for requesting accommodations.

✔️ Regularly review and address accommodation requests promptly.

✔️ Develop clear policies and procedures for requesting and implementing adjustments.

Key Takeaways

  • Improve physical and digital accessibility, workplace attitudes, and reasonable adjustments for a supportive environment.
  • Regular training on diversity, inclusion, and accessibility fosters an inclusive workplace culture.
  • Leverage resources such as ADA Standards, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and disability training programs to ensure compliance and best practices.
  • Develop clear, confidential processes for requesting accommodations and offer flexible work arrangements to support employees.

Developing an accessible workplace: FAQs

How can small businesses afford to implement accessibility measures?

Small businesses can start with low-cost changes like rearranging furniture for better access and using free digital tools that comply with accessibility standards. Grants and tax credits are also available to offset the costs of accessibility improvements.

How can employers ensure their recruitment process is accessible?

Employers can ensure an accessible recruitment process by using accessible online application systems and providing alternative formats for job descriptions and applications. Additionally, training HR staff on disability inclusion and providing reasonable accommodations during interviews is essential.

What are some best practices for communicating accessibility policies to employees?

Best practices include using multiple channels such as emails, intranet, and staff meetings to communicate accessibility policies. Ensuring that all communication is accessible and providing clear, detailed information about available accommodations and support is crucial.

How can virtual meetings be made accessible for all participants?

To make virtual meetings accessible, use platforms that support closed captioning and screen reader compatibility. Also, share meeting materials in advance and ensure all content is accessible.

How can employers support neurodiverse employees?

Employers can support neurodiverse employees by offering flexible work arrangements, providing clear and structured instructions, and creating quiet, low-stimulation workspaces. Training for managers and staff on neurodiversity can also foster a supportive work environment.

How can remote or hybrid work arrangements be made accessible?

Remote or hybrid work arrangements can be made accessible by providing assistive technologies and ensuring all digital communication tools are accessible. Offering flexible schedules and regular check-ins can also support employees' varying needs.