For years, disabled people have fought for the right to participate in all aspects of society. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. It prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government services, places of public accommodations, and telecommunications. Although the ADA constituted a major victory for the rights of disabled people, more needs to be done to realize the Act’s promise of full inclusion. Disabled people continue to face myriad inequities in education, employment, healthcare, housing, and voting. These inequities are perpetuated by the ideology of ableism, which is defined as discrimination that favors able-bodied people.
Every October, we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This year’s theme is “Disability: Part of the Equity Equation.” Most law firms focus on making their workplace culture diverse, equitable, and inclusive for all.
Disabled people are employed at less than one third the rate of their peers. Each employee, or prospective employee, has different, experiences, abilities, opportunities, and needs. As employers, equity demands that we acknowledge this and provide each employee with the resources and supports they need to thrive and succeed.
For disabled employees, accessibility is central to leveling the playing field. Each step counts — every one of us can do our part to make employment opportunities more equitable for all. The COVID-19 pandemic brought workplace accessibility issues to the forefront. Options such as video conferencing and flexible schedules created new opportunities for disabled employees. Done thoughtfully, they can create an equitable and inclusive workplace culture where disabled employees feel like they are valued and truly belong.
Accessibility Starts with Strong Leadership
When I give workshops about disability and ableism, people often ask me what this looks like in action. Consider this real-life scenario. I was recently sitting in a meeting with several advocates for workplace equity. The leader of the organization visited the group for the first time. One of our participants, who uses a wheelchair, shared how inaccessible the office spaces are for disabled employees.
The leader’s response? A speech about their experience on an ADA advisory board — ten years earlier — concluding with: “Oh, have you seen the map that shows wheelchair routes?”
The disabled colleague has been an employee for several years and surely did not need a map.
The lesson? When a disabled person raises an issue related to access, stop and listen to their experience. Learn about the existing barriers and engage the employee and others in a dialogue about how to address these barriers.
Make Accessibility Your Standard of Practice
Passed over 30 years ago, the ADA put many guidelines in place that set an expectation of non-discrimination. However, complying with the ADA represents the floor not the ceiling. Access is more than accommodations. It is a mindset that our organizations want all of our employees to thrive — not just survive.
There are many steps employers can take proactively before employees disclose their disability or request an accommodation. For example, are you hosting a virtual or in-person meeting? If so, have ready a go-to vendor to provide quality real-time captions. Do you share slide decks or other digital materials with your staff? If “yes”, make sure they — and your website — pass accessibility checks. Looking to hire and retain disabled people at your firm? Check that your job application and interview processes are accessible. Also, be proactive in offering flexibility, accommodations, and consideration for prospective and current disabled employees.
One way that employers can create truly accessible workplaces is through “universal design” — the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Examples of universal design in the workplace include effective lighting; adequate space for travel and maneuvering; minimal noise levels; quiet spaces; elimination of obstacles in path of travel; automatic doors; accessible entrances, restrooms, kitchens, and elevators; adjustable chairs and workstations (ergonomic furniture); accessible, high contrast signage; alternate formats (large print, electronic files); and multi-sensory alarm signals (auditory, visual), among others. Universal design combats ableism and benefits everyone.
Employers should engage their staff about strategies for access. Do so by framing them as strategies for success. In my accessibility project funded by Microsoft, we found that conversations about how and when people work often lead to employee-led solutions. There is a great deal of creative problem-solving capacity within the disabled workforce that often goes untapped. Respectful dialog with disabled employees leads to a culture of accessibility that is in sync with larger DEI efforts within your organization.
NDEAM is an opportunity to learn more about disability, accessibility, universal design, and ways to engage with your disabled colleagues. Proactive, intentional steps towards full inclusion are critical steps towards a fully equitable, inclusive workplace.
About the author: Stephanie W. Cawthon, PhD, is a professor at The University of Texas at Austin. She is an author, speaker, and researcher who is internationally renowned for her work that examines how disabled people can thrive and succeed in workplaces, classrooms, and throughout their lives. For more information about her workshops and consulting practice, visit her website: StephanieCawthon.com.