The Inclusion Effect: A Better Workplace for People With Disabilities

As companies across industries make diversity and inclusion a priority, hiring and supporting people with disabilities has never been more important.
Jul 30, 2019 10:05 AM ET

Jennison Asuncion, who focuses on digital accessibility within LinkedIn Engineering, is completely blind.  On any given day at work, he uses JAWS, software that reads what's on the screen or display, to access web applications and websites. On mobile, he uses the VoiceOver screen reader setting on his iPhone. Tools and accommodations like the ones Asuncion uses daily have never been more important — for employees and employers. 

Today, one in four adults in the U.S. lives with some kind of disability — some of which may not be obvious to the people around them. “Many people living with disabilities aren’t living with visible ones,” says Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, an organization that fights stigma and advances opportunities for people with disabilities. So-called “invisible” conditions such as chronic pain, dyslexia, bipolar disorder, lupus, Crohn’s disease or migraines are federally protected, yet many people aren’t even aware their colleagues have them — and many workplaces aren’t fully empowering employees who do.

The traditional office setup of a computer, keyboard, mouse and maybe a landline phone doesn’t meet everyone’s needs. Chronic pain can make using a traditional keyboard and mouse difficult, for example, and people with colorblindness or dyslexia might struggle reading the slides in a presentation on a laptop screen.

As companies across industries make diversity and inclusion a priority, some are making full use of design and technology to create the accessible workplaces of the future today. Companies who strive to make their offices accessible set themselves up to hire great candidates and tap into a much larger talent pool.

Inclusion by design

Asuncion says that good inclusive design starts at the beginning of the process and includes users with disabilities in testing.

“Companies who are doing it right are thinking about accessibility immediately at the beginning of the project,” he says. “Not weeks from launch, when everything's basically signed, sealed and delivered and then they're like, ‘OK, now we have to think about accessibility.’” 

For example, Google’s new hires in engineering and product design receive training from the company’s accessibility team as part of their onboarding program, and testing with users with disabilities is baked into the research and development processes.

“If tech companies don’t design for accessibility from square one, they’ll spend more resources trying to fix or patch something later that would have made business sense to do in the first place,” says Michael Rohwer, a director at Business for Social Responsibility who works with technology companies on being more inclusive. “Designing for accessibility from the beginning also sends the important message that users with disabilities are more than an afterthought.”

When the HP Office Printing Solutions team recently relaunched HP’s multi-function printers to be more accessible, features that improved voice control and screen reading were on the top of the to-do list.

“If you don't have a disability, you can walk up to the printer, press ‘2,’ and make two copies pretty easily,” says Sam Ogami, an accessibility program manager at HP. “We want to make sure that if you're visually impaired, it's still that easy.” 

Ogami and his colleagues at HP’s Office of Aging and Accessibility evaluated the accessibility of the printers’ four main functions: print, scan, fax and copy. Then, they conducted user studies and tested solutions with people with different types of disabilities. After listening to their feedback, the team recently debuted a host of new printer accessibility features for many of HP’s Enterprise class printers and multifunction printers, including voice commands to perform some tasks, a screen-reading feature (both enabled with the addition of an optional accessory), and a built-in screen-zoom feature.

“Designing for accessibility from the beginning sends the important message that users with disabilities are more than an afterthought.”

—Michael Rohwer, director at Business for Social Responsibility

Inclusive design also has the potential to inspire products used by millions of people across the globe. The FingerWorks keyboard was a foldable piece of gesture-recognition technology developed by Wayne Westerman, who was looking for a keyboard that didn’t aggravate his carpal tunnel syndrome. In 2005, Apple bought the company and integrated the FingerWorks system into its first ever iPhone, iterating on what would eventually become many of the multi-touch features used on the products’ touchscreens today.

While many employees with disabilities benefit from these well-designed physical objects, making internet use more accessible is also essential to the inclusive workplace. Simple design tweaks like increasing contrast, supporting keyboard navigation and writing alternative (alt) text descriptions for people who can’t see images are all ways to make sure websites can be consumed by everyone. Color Oracle, a free color blindness simulator, is one tool that lets web developers design for accessibility. Plus, accessible websites are good for business: They reach a larger audience and create a better experience for all users. 

Technology that equips and empowers

Inclusive technologies are already built into the phone in your pocket and the computer you use at work. On video upload sites like YouTube, for example, automatic closed captioning transcribes your video’s sound instantly. 

But the digital revolution has also created a new spectrum of tools specifically designed to empower employees with disabilities in an accessible office.

“Because tech is inherently about improving communication between people, new developments in accessible technology are great mechanisms for fostering deeper conversations and connections in the workplace,” Rohwer says.

Today’s tech supplies a full range of accessibility options. Proofreading software like Ginger and Ghotit can be lifesavers for employees with dyslexia or other learning disabilities. JAWS, the screen reader used by Asuncion, provides speech and Braille versions of on-screen text. Employees with limited mobility can use a sip-and-puff joystick system to control a computer using their mouths. And apps like Dragon speech recognition software, a program that turns your voice to text, makes one-on-one and group communication easier.

“We have a number of members of our team who don't have use of their hands, and they're typing memos all the time” via these apps, Mizrahi says.

An organization called Raising the Floor is also working on personalization solutions for people who have trouble accessing digital tools and services. Imagine a world where a deaf employee’s new laptop can scan her face and automatically adjust itself to the specific assistive technologies she requires.

As more companies embrace the importance of inclusive workplaces, tools like virtual reality and AI — which can be used to do something like turn on a computer with a voice command — are emerging as new ways to make the world more accessible. For example, the Microsoft Seeing AI app helps users with low vision experience more of the physical world around them with tools that can recognize their friends’ faces and read aloud text that’s been captured by a camera.

“From teleconferencing and text-to-speech to closed captioning and natural language recognition, all these tools create a more accessible and inclusive way for people to bring their full authentic selves to work, live and thrive,” Rohwer says.

A workplace that welcomes all

Ensuring your workplace is accessible and welcoming to all people does more than just empower current employees — it also helps attract new ones.

“In the current corporate battle for talent, inclusive workplaces aren’t just a perk,” Rohwer says. “It's a necessity to access the best talent. Any limits on the recruitment pool are a cost you impose on yourself.”

In fact, many companies are specifically recruiting people with disabilities. Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program aims to attract talent and build an inclusive approach to support individuals on the autism spectrum. At JP Morgan Chase, undergraduate students with disabilities can apply to the We See Ability internship program to spend a summer immersed in the financial services industry.

Training managers on how to fight unconscious bias, provide meaningful feedback to employees and create safe spaces is also key.

“I'm convinced that people are not deliberately excluding people with disabilities,” Asuncion says. “They just don't know where to start, and the best place to start is by actually engaging with people with disabilities and just asking them, ‘What works for you? What doesn't work?’”

To make employees with disabilities feel safe and included, communication is vital. Mizrahi says companies should practice “ATP,” or “ask the person” what they need to feel accommodated, whether it’s flex time to attend doctor’s appointments, physical solutions like a standing desk or possibly a reduced schedule.

“A big part of inclusion is just building a relationship of trust with your employees and asking them what they need to thrive in your office environment,” she says. “People with disabilities can be the most talented people in the room if we can enable them to bring their magic forward.”