From Margins to Mainstream: The Emergence of Organizational Accessibility as a Priority
Durga Ramakrishna (Krishna) Gadiraju
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Workplace diversity is a powerful differentiator and success factor in today’s organizations. While racial, ethnic, and gender diversity are the common focuses of diversity and inclusion practices, a truly diverse workforce goes much further. To be successful, companies need to recognize that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is not a checkbox function, but rather an ongoing effort. This requires companies to be more empathetic and accepting of every individual to create a corporate culture where everyone feels valued and respected. Additionally, companies can support a diverse workforce by providing assistive technologies that help employees improve their independence by making the workplace more accessible.
DEI: A broader topic than simply race and gender
Diversity means many things in today’s society. While diversity traditionally was described only as race and gender, companies and diversity experts increasingly consider many factors, from age, religion, cultural differences, and disabilities. The World Bank estimates that more than one billion people worldwide, around 15 percent of the population, live with a disability.
That’s one reason why many organizations are reevaluating their DEI strategies and initiatives. They seek to better support a broad spectrum of employees and enable more individuals to contribute in a positive way to the success of the company. As workforces become more diverse, executives are discovering that a diverse culture has numerous benefits, including:
Shared experience. By investing in the equality of every group, all employees benefit, resulting in a sense of shared opportunity and increased happiness, productivity, and commitment.
Vast perspectives. Companies that hire a more diverse employee population gain a bigger talent pool and broaden perspectives for problem-solving, resulting in more innovation and a competitive advantage.
Positive workplace. When organizations prioritize DEI, it fosters a creative, encouraging environment, where employees are collaborative, engaged, and content.
Customers’ needs. Companies usually have a diverse customer base. By focusing on DEI in all aspects, customers know they are being represented and understood.
Equal opportunities. Infusing DEI into a company shows consumers and employees that they provide opportunities to all people.
Mirror the market. Diversity and inclusion are vital to building an infrastructure that reflects the market, including people of different ages, genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, races, abilities, disabilities, cultures, and religions.
Enhanced innovation and creativity. By enabling diverse employees with different skills, backgrounds, and life perspectives to work together, the sky is the limit on innovation. A Harvard Business Review study showed diverse companies had a 19 percent higher innovation revenue.
Better retention. When staff feel valued and that their voices are heard and they are supported in the workplace, they will likely stay with a company for the long term.
Best practices for success
An inclusive work environment is an essential consideration for employees when they are interviewing and contemplating jobs with companies. The following best practices are some of the ways to build a more inclusive and diverse corporate culture.
Showcase leadership diversity. The presence of diverse leaders in an organization correlates with employees feeling more included. Diverse leaders represent the organization’s inclusivity and values.
Seek employee feedback on improving diversity and inclusivity. Encouraging employee feedback will spark ideas to strengthen a sense of belonging.
Update spaces in the office to support all employees. Consider how to help meet employees’ needs, such as a nursing room for mothers, gender-neutral bathrooms, and ways for disabled workers or those with special needs to get around the office and do their work effectively.
Accommodate employees with special needs and disabilities. Companies need to have empathy and ensure that employees with special needs, whether physical, mental, or cognitive disabilities, can easily do their work and have the proper support, training, and mentor programs. Some ways to accommodate workers with a disability include altering their jobs to better fit their skills, offering remote or hybrid work, creating a modified schedule, providing reserved parking, or assigning employees to a workspace closer to a bathroom or an exit. Companies can offer adjustable chairs, ergonomic keyboards and assistive technologies, like text-to-speech software, voice assistants, and smart glasses, to name a few. For example, screen readers help those who are blind or visually impaired read text or understand the imagery displayed on a screen through either an audible response or by displaying the text in braille. Apple and Google have made significant strides in providing accessibility updates, which make technology easier to navigate for the blind and vision impaired. Other companies have created innovative ways for those with hearing disabilities to follow music and movies.
Link mentors with employees with disabilities. Mentoring helps individuals feel empowered, supported, and happy, as well as provides what they need to flourish personally and professionally.
Many companies have increased their DEI efforts and assistive technology availability. To supplement those efforts, there are industry groups that offer guidance, funding, and events designed to help organizations build a more diverse and inclusive workforce. The IEEE Computer Society is an example of one organization that offers a variety of DEI events and programs, including its Diversity & Inclusion Fund, which is open to annual submissions in the fall and funds selected DEI proposals in the $15,000-$25,000 range. Some of these approaches can help other companies enhance their DEI strategies.
How companies can avoid common mistakes
Creating an effective policy for DEI is complex as it requires a shift in how companies think and operate to be more successful with DEI programs. This means applying DEI strategies to everything a company does and offering continuous DEI training at every level.
When seeking new employees to fill positions, it is vital that a candidate’s values are aligned with the company’s values. Organizations need to evaluate their values without biases of color, race, gender, disability, or other differences. It’s important to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion—and not just on one or two of these factors—to create a truly diverse environment. Additionally, leaders need to think through the legal and ethical implications to ensure that decisions and viewpoints encompass all types of people. It’s also critical for leaders to take into consideration the needs of all demographic groups, including women and ethnic minorities. Finally, corporations with storefronts and banks should ensure their physical spaces are accessible for people with physical disabilities.
Embracing assistive technology for a competitive advantage
Today’s companies have a legal and moral imperative to provide support to employees with disabilities. Yet research shows that disabled individuals face disproportionately high unemployment rates and increased poverty levels compared to their non-disabled counterparts. In fact, the U.S. unemployment rate for disabled people is also about twice as high as the rate for persons without a disability. By leveraging assistive technology, organizations can foster inclusive workplaces where disabled employees flourish and make significant contributions.
By embracing DEI in all forms, organizations can reap the benefits of various perspectives, backgrounds, experiences, and ideas, resulting in more incredible innovation, productivity, and success. To be fully inclusive, it is essential that companies consider assistive technology as part of their DEI initiatives, ensuring disabled employees enjoy the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers. By doing so, they expand their employee pool. Actively recruiting disabled people and provide the assistive technology they need to thrive at work can propel a company ahead of its competitors who overlook this viable talent pool.
About the Author
Durga Ramakrishna (Krishna) Gadiraju is an experienced accessibility specialist with the ability to promote accessibility for all users, conforming to ARIA, WCAG, and Section 508 regulatory standards. He has a proven track record of collaborating with cross-functional teams and senior leadership to optimize products per accessibility standards and enhance processes across test automation, user experience development, and design. For more information, contact him at email@example.com or on LinkedIn.
Disclaimer: The author is completely responsible for the content of this article. The opinions expressed are their own and do not represent IEEE’s position nor that of the Computer Society nor its Leadership.