- Accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should be embedded in the way that we create technology.
- Involve employees in the process. That may mean ensuring that people with disabilities are included in the talent and skills represented across teams, user testing and feedback, and intentionally involved from design to delivery.
- Don’t become beholden to the algorithm. AI and machine learning algorithms are often based on historical data that can define normalcy in a narrow way. That’s why some organizations are establishing AI & Data Ethics Boards, to review product development and make sure it is inclusive.
- Embrace different thinking. People with neurodiversities like ADHD, dyslexia, autism and dyspraxia think differently and that cognitive diversity can be an advantage, just as someone whose other differentiators cause them to bring in a different perspective, be that age, experience, language and more.
When people think of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), race and gender are the attributes that typically come to mind. People with disabilities may also be included, but usually only in terms of accessibility. Even then, it’s often an afterthought.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 61 million American adults live with a disability, be it mobility, hearing, vision or cognition, and that number grows to over 1 billion globally. Most people will experience some sort of disability in their lifetime even if it's temporary. This means that there is a vast number of people who experience difficulties in how their work gets done or might feel their needs aren’t considered when it comes to certain processes or technologies.
What does this mean for employers? And, specifically, what does it mean for how companies develop technology to serve the needs of workers and customers?
People with disabilities are an untapped and underrepresented group in many technology development conversations. However, when this group is included, the result is a universal design that meets the needs of all employees — not just those with disabilities.
A good example of this is the virtual assistant. First developed to help those with low vision who couldn’t see their keyboards, it has become ubiquitous and used by millions of people who enjoy the ease and convenience of the program.
Not only is increasing access via technology the right thing to do, but it makes good business sense. It increases an organization’s ability to tap into the skills of all its employees and help them realize their fullest potential. Accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should be embedded in the way that we create technology.
How Inclusion Can Get Lost in Technology
It tends to start quietly. Someone realizes that they’re on the periphery and can’t access the same information as coworkers or get their jobs done without difficulty. It starts when people feel that they don't belong.
“How come I wasn't thought of in this experience?”
There’s a saying among people with disabilities: “Nothing for us without us.” It’s not just accessibility that should be considered in creating technology. Development must involve those whom it affects, created with their experiences and representation.
Too often, others outside the impacted population might make decisions to “fix” software in a way that does not actually help. This guiding principle applies, of course, to all groups of people. If you want to know what someone needs, involve them in the process. That may mean ensuring that people with disabilities are included in the talent and skills represented across teams, user testing and feedback, and intentionally involved from design to delivery.
That can be as simple as using tools already present in the software, remembering to turn on closed captioning during a video conference call, or using the translate feature. Some video conference programs even offer access to a sign language interpreter. Real inclusion means turning these functions on before someone says they need them, so they feel included from the get-go.
And it begins from the moment a candidate engages with the organization. It’s part of the job description, the way the screen appears, how the candidate can complete the application, the interview process and all the way to onboarding. To be truly inclusive means examining each step in the employee journey.
Building Accessibility Into the Code
This may seem complicated, but it’s about asking the simple question, “Who is left out of this experience, if at all?” for every step of the development process. Consider these questions when evaluating your technology and processes:
- Have we left out an underrepresented group?
- Have we considered people with disabilities, veterans, all sexual orientations, gender identity, ethnicity, age, neurodiversity, etc.? Even people who are left-handed.
- Have we included people with different language sets?
- What about people who don't have broad internet access?
- Are we thinking about cultural context?
It goes as deep as the coding process itself. Who is coding the product? Do they represent the diversity of its intended users? If not, is there oversight to evaluate potential bias? Artificial intelligence (AI), with all its power and potential, can also maintain bias. AI and machine learning algorithms are often based on historical data that can define normalcy in a narrow way.
If you fall outside what is considered “typical,” you may, at best, be ignored or, at worst, seen as inferior. That’s why some organizations are establishing AI & Data Ethics Boards, to review product development and make sure it is inclusive.
What’s at Stake?
People with disabilities are statistically an untapped group of talent with high numbers of unemployment and underemployment, often working in roles below their level that do not utilize their education and skills.
They have skill sets that employers should value, especially in a competitive talent market. These individuals bring unique perspectives increasingly recognized by research studies and even the recognition of neurodiversity as a skill. The value here is in cognitive diversity, a critical component in driving innovation forward.
People with neurodiversities, like ADHD, dyslexia, autism and dyspraxia, to name a few, think differently, and that cognitive diversity can be an advantage, just as someone whose other differentiators cause them to bring in a different perspective, be that age, experience, language, and more.
Similarly, people with disabilities, whether they have a chronic illness or are wheelchair users, for example, often navigate the world in ways that require skills such as making one’s own accommodations, overcoming obstacles, and finding alternative ways to accomplish tasks often set up with non-disabled people in mind. Those are tremendous skills and perspectives to have on a team. It’s a strategic mindset.
Building inclusion into tech tools is a holistic effort. Many eyes must evaluate the product from start to finish before it ever goes to market. This includes internal users, customers, employees, marketing and IT.
Not only does this inclusivity strengthen the outcome, but it also creates awareness at every level of the organization — an important foundational point in building a more inclusive world of work.
Editor’s Note: Additional Content
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