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Workplace Accessibility Beyond the Basics

February 5, 2021
By

Ann Bardsley, Director of Corporate Communications and Public Relations, didn’t know how to sign when she accepted her position at Sorenson Communications. In fact, she confirmed that it wasn’t an eligibility requirement of the job prior to joining the team. But as her tenure grew with the company, which provides interpreting and phone captioning services for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, she came to view it as both a professional and personal opportunity for her to better connect with her clients and colleagues. Plus, Sorenson offered classes free of charge to help Bardsley learn American Sign Language (ASL) and continue to refine her skills.

Sorenson Communications, named one of Forbes’s Best Employers for Diversity in 2020, employs many deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals across the organization. For the company, ensuring workplace accessibility is more than just doing the right thing; Sorenson’s employees bring a vital perspective to the company’s product and services.

“The opinion of our deaf and hard-of-hearing employees is truly invaluable to us as a company,” said Bardsley. But in order to reap the benefits of their diverse workforce, Sorenson worked hard to embed accessibility and inclusivity for people of all abilities into their culture.

And they are far from the only company doing so. With the case for disability inclusion well documented, organizations everywhere are wondering how they can tap into the highly skilled and underemployed communities of people with disabilities. But to truly reap the benefits of having a diverse workforce, companies must go beyond the bare minimum of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Instead, what’s needed is a strategic approach to recruit, retain, support, and encourage employees across a range of abilities, plus an enthusiasm for what individuals of varying abilities could contribute to your company.

“The most powerful way to be accommodating is to be open-minded,” said chemist and entrepreneur Hoby Webler, PhD. “I don’t want companies to hire me because I’m blind. I want people to hire me because I might bring something else to the table because of that.”

Here’s how companies are taking actionable steps to build disability-inclusive company cultures and foster a sense of belonging for all — and how your organization can, too.

1. Ensure application accessibility.

Alexander Hauerslev Jensen, COO of Be My Eyes, a free app that connects blind and low-vision people with sighted volunteers, emphasized that increasing accessibility and inclusion in the workplace starts with ensuring accessibility at every stage of the employee lifecycle, beginning with the application process.

“A lot of companies I speak to reiterate their commitment to accessibility for their employees, but that’s only helpful once you already have a job,” Hauerslev Jensen noted. “That doesn’t address the needs of those experiencing a disability who are unemployed or underemployed” — a figure that’s significant, given that individuals experiencing a disability are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to those not experiencing a disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To help address accessibility gaps in the professional world, Be My Eyes offers business solutions to support an organization’s customers and employees. Through Be My Eyes for Work, the company assists its partners with internal communication tools, as well as external specialized help pages which aid in removing accessibility barriers for blind and low-vision individuals who are job searching.

Prospective applicants engaging with a company using Be My Eyes for Work can visit a webpage to easily get in contact with someone who can help them complete the application, answer questions about accommodations, and provide other accessibility- or accommodation-related information or services.

“A lot of that information is there [on the site, or exists in the organization], it’s just hidden or hard to reach because of accessibility barriers,” said Hauerslev Jensen. “And if there’s such a barrier up front, you’re not going to be able to build a truly inclusive workplace, so recruitment teams and HR departments have a huge responsibility to make sure that it’s very easy for people with disabilities to apply for jobs. And of course, once they’re hired, to ensure they’re supported all the way through.”

2. Offer specialty hiring events.

An accessible application process is necessary to build a more diverse workforce, but for individuals experiencing a disability, the interview process may present challenges as well.

To address this, Microsoft debuted its Neurodiversity Hiring Program in 2015 to help bridge the accessibility gap in recruiting for neurodiverse individuals. Spearheaded by Neil Barnett, Director of Hiring and Accessibility, the program seeks to identify candidates on the autism spectrum and hire them for positions at Microsoft.

“Given that 80% of individuals on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed, we knew there was an untapped pool of talented people who have the skills aligned to the work we are doing every day at Microsoft,” said Barnett in a post on Microsoft’s Accessibility Blog.

“I don’t want companies to hire me because I’m blind. I want people to hire me because I bring something to the table.” 

Recognizing that those on the autism spectrum may not be able to demonstrate the full depth and breadth of their skills and knowledge in the traditional recruiting process, the program offers an alternative experience for neurodiverse individuals to showcase their strengths and qualifications.

Selected applicants are invited to an extended interview process which includes a multi-day, in-person hiring event that focuses on “technical skills, team building, and interview preparation,” according to the website for Microsoft’s Neurodiversity Hiring Program. Applicants then go on to meet with interviewers in both formal and informal settings. (Note: At the time of publication, Microsoft is hosting virtual hiring events in lieu of in-person events due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

“Being inclusive is not something we simply do, but rather it stands for who we are,” said Barnett in his blog post.

3. Prioritize digital accessibility.

Embedding accessibility into all of its culture and services has been a priority since day one for EY, the financial firm formerly known as Ernst and Young. Founded in part by Arthur Young, an attorney who was blind and hard of hearing, the organization has long been a champion for inclusivity. “The firm has a very deep commitment that’s really baked into everything we say, do, and build,” said Lori Golden, Abilities Strategy Lead for the Americas at EY.

While the commitment to accessibility is long-standing, it’s required growth and expansion as the world has evolved, especially when it comes to technology. “In order for us to create environments that are truly inclusive they have to be accessible, and in order for them to be accessible, we need digital accessibility,” Golden said.

Among the many cross-functional, cross-organizational accessibility initiatives EY has in operation and underway, their IT disabilities support services structure is one that Golden believes to be hugely impactful. Comprising a few different functions, like Assistive Technologies, EY’s Accessibility Center of Excellence (ACE), and Human Services, the company’s IT disabilities support services provide a range of assistance for employees of varying abilities.

For example, when a senior manager at the firm was paralyzed in a water slide accident while on vacation, one of the team members on EY’s Assistive Technology function, who formerly worked for the world-renowned Shepherd Center, a spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation facility, set to work finding ways to help this employee once again thrive in her role. “He was able to find an innovative, flexible stylus that requires very little coordination on her part, and he worked with her so she was able to write again using this tool,” Golden said.

While this was a highly unique case, more common, everyday uses of this support service structure include producing alternative versions of materials for individuals. “For example, said Golden, “if an EY employee who is deaf wants to take a training, we’ll convert the audio of the training into the most digestible format for the employee.”

ACE team members also serve as subject-matter experts and consultants at the firm, helping EY stay current on its commitment to inclusion and accessibility.

4. Make corporate communications accessible.

Sorenson Communications serves the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities through their video relay products and caption services, but also employs deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals across the organization.

To help assist all employees in finding success in their roles, Sorensen has built everyday life and business operations at the company around accessibility. Practically speaking, this means taking a number of measures like providing ASL interpreters in all of their meetings, both virtual and in-person; offering ASL training for employees, like Bardsley, who are eager to improve their signing skills; and relying on a combination of formats, like email plus a signed or captioned video, for important corporate communications.

Providing corporate messaging in a variety of formats to ensure accessible communication reached a new level of importance in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. “This was a time when communication absolutely had to be understandable by all employees, and presented in their native language,” said Bardsley.

As business leaders across the globe sought to assure their workforces through strong messaging, Sorenson’s Corporate Communications team shared a video of their CEO discussing the measures the company would be taking to limit the spread of the virus and ensure the safety of all employees. He was accompanied by an interpreter who signed the message for the company’s deaf employees, and in the company-wide email, the video was also captioned to ensure the hard-of-hearing employees, who don’t sign, were able to understand the message as well.

“When we talk about making communication accessible, ‘Connecting Life’ is much more than just a tagline at Sorenson,” said Bardsley. “We live this, and we have to — and want to — do for our employee base what we do for our customer base.”



True workplace accessibility and inclusivity means providing the tools and services all employees need to grow, develop, and thrive at your organization —  at every stage of the employee lifecycle. While building an inclusive workplace requires strategy, flexibility, and diligence, what’s most important is a meaningful commitment to ensuring accessibility for all.