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Is your digital workplace truly empowering workers with disabilities?

Sommer Panage, Slack
Sommer Panage
Sommer Panage is a Senior Engineering Manager for Accessibility at Slack. In an increasingly digital work world, Sommer and her team at Slack create technology that is accessible for people with disabilities. Prior to her role at Slack, she led the iOS Accessibility team at Apple for four years as an Engineering Manager. Sommer has also worked at Twitter and start-up Chorus Fitness. With a passion for accessibility, she has spent many years freelancing as an Accessibility Specialist.

For people with disabilities, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll—but it’s also brought stronger chances of employment.

According to Economic Innovation Group, disabled individuals were more likely to be employed in 2022 than they were before the pandemic, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that unemployment is falling faster among people with disabilities than it is among those without.

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This is due in part to a hot job market, which from 2020-22 incentivized employers to tap into unexplored—and, frankly, underexplored—pools of talent. An even larger player is employers’ newfound openness to remote work, which could lead to increased accessibility for employees with disabilities.

But inclusion efforts don’t end with hiring. Remote-friendly companies should support disabled workers by investing in tools and practices that empower all employees to succeed from anywhere.

See also: 3 benefits of being a more self-aware HR leader

Why accessibility matters

Disabled workers are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act, but legal compliance is just one of many reasons to accommodate and include these employees.

For better or for worse, American society largely revolves around work—without which it’s nearly impossible to access affordable healthcare, let alone achieve economic equality. So, for anyone to be truly included in society, they must be able to work. Companies, in turn, have an ethical obligation to make their workplaces as accessible as possible.

These efforts pay off for employers as well. Yes, flexible work environments improve company culture and employee productivity—but also, companies that accommodate disabled employees simply build better products.

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Products are built to suit the people who build them, no matter how hard the builders try to think outside of their boxes. Diversifying the group that’s building a product means the product will appeal to a larger variety of consumers. As such, companies create better things when their workplaces are inclusive.

Achieving accessibility in a digital HQ

Flexible work environments boost productivity for workers regardless of their disability status. And for many people with disabilities, schedule and location flexibility are necessary accommodations.

Pandemic-era flexible work options have brought record numbers of disabled people into the U.S. workforce. But a workspace isn’t automatically accessible just because it’s remote. Companies with digital HQs must take extra steps to fully accommodate their employees with disabilities.

Let’s look at some tools and practices that businesses can adopt to build accessible digital HQs:

  • Accommodate employees who are blind or low-vision by ensuring that all software required for work fully supports major screen readers and large text sizes.
  • Make sure all required software can be used with keyboard input only and with voice-input technologies (e.g., Voice Control) to accommodate workers with motor disabilities.
  • Use software with captioning for workers who are deaf or hard of hearing (e.g., Slack’s “huddles” feature).
  • Supply home-office equipment that meets employees’ needs (e.g., an adaptive keyboard, a mouse for someone who can’t use a trackpad or an adaptive desk chair).
  • Permit employees to set their schedules to accommodate those with regular doctor’s appointments or other obligations.
  • Reduce time spent in meetings to promote asynchronous work and schedule flexibility.
  • Support asynchronous collaboration through chat and shared calendar software.

Related: 4 lessons for infusing DEI into your corporate culture

Coping with the return of in-person work

As the world attempts to resume its pre-pandemic status quo, many companies are requiring or asking employees to return to in-person workspaces. This can mean tough calls and reduced accessibility for workers with disabilities.

Remote employees who opted not to disclose their disabilities when hired may now feel forced to do so—an uncomfortable situation at best.

Likewise, workers with disabilities may heed company encouragement or policy and return to the office. This could potentially result in declined productivity and mental or physical health.

At the end of the day, some people love the office and others prefer remote workspaces. But, according to recent research from Future Forum, the vast majority of workers just want the flexibility to decide where they work (80%) and when (94%).

Creating an inclusive digital workplace

Given the growing share of disabled employees in our workforce, it’s more critical than ever for employers to practice inclusivity in their digital HQs.

Language can make or break these efforts. For example, a leader who promotes team bonding by emphasizing the communal aspects of an in-person office may inadvertently isolate employees who aren’t able to work in person.

The key is to unite teams across time zones and workspaces around the common purpose of their work, not the location of their work.

In the same vein, feelings of loneliness and isolation are some of the most common issues home-based employees face. Company leaders can combat these problems with activities and shows of appreciation that incorporate remote workers. It’s also critical for companies to provide insurance with robust mental healthcare coverage—and these resources should be easy for all employees to access.

Finally, employee resource groups can go a long way toward community-building and facilitating peer advocacy among individuals with disabilities.

In short: Companies should do whatever they can to show that their workers with disabilities are safe and supported.