Establishing accessibility at work goes beyond updating your front entrance to legally acceptable standards. In reality, true workplace accessibility anticipates the needs of employees of all types, reducing ability-related friction and enhancing equality. When organizations can establish an accessible work environment, their teams can be at their most effective and engaged.
To the untrained eye, your work environment may seem to offer basic accessibility. However, under further inspection, you’ll likely uncover major misses in accommodations. Soap dispensers may be placed out of reach for those using wheelchairs. Thresholds may be too steep for accessibility devices to scale. An accessibility audit may reveal noncompliance with obvious federally required accommodations.
Partner with your human resources team, building manager, and technology leaders to discuss basic requirements. Some needs will be physical, like accessibility to your building, individual workspaces, and tools. Others will be technology-based, making close collaboration with your technical and security team essential.
Consider how your staff will interact with your systems, no matter their ability levels. Advancements in technology can make this upgrade easier in both in-person and remote workspaces. Technology managers can review computer systems, apps, and other devices, many of which are equipped with accessibility features. Reader tools, adaptive technology, and flexible workstations make interacting with computer systems seamless, allowing colleagues to work with ease.
Physical systems can be made more accessible with tools like smart Wi-Fi, app-based controls, and voice activation. Your office manager can adjust the building’s air conditioning unit, update badge access, and manage permissions using tech-based tools. Discuss accessibility with those entrusted with building updates, and have an understanding of local code requirements.
2. Experience the Employee Journey Through Multiple Lenses
If reviewing legal requirements is the logical first step in ensuring workplace accessibility, experiencing your employees’ journey is the second. Just as you’d navigate your customer journey step-by-step, conduct a similar exercise for your various employee types.
First, set the scope of your employee journey assessment. Your goal should be to ensure you’re assessing your team’s current needs and a range of potential future scenarios. For example, list out the physical, mental, and emotional needs of employees, collaborating with HR leaders while ensuring confidentiality. This exercise requires discretion and empathy, and depersonalizing specific needs can help respect this boundary.
Once you’ve identified a list of considerations, model what a day in the life looks like through that lens. For in-person teams, that means navigating the journey from employee arrival, through the workday, to the day’s end.
Do your best to imagine what it’s like from a differently abled person’s perspective and with their unique needs. Physically adjust your height to view the world from a chair, conduct tasks with differing abilities, and log your findings. Partner with a consultant to further assess your workplace and get valuable expert advice.
3. Engage Your Teams in Meaningful Conversations About Accessibility and Inclusivity
Shifting one’s language and thought processes can be hard, especially without context. However, the way teams work to welcome others matters. Conversations about accessibility deserve time and attention in today’s workplaces, no matter the industry or size. Create space for meaningful discussions about accessibility and inclusivity, encompassing issues both seen and unseen.
Equip your teams with resources and training to be their most empathetic, welcoming, and considerate. Remember, your team members come from many backgrounds, experiences, and generations, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Don’t neglect needs that are less visible, such as varying learning abilities, mental health needs, and more. Include life-stage needs related to the postpartum period, aging, and grief. The breadth of accessibility isn’t limited, so understanding how your organization can be supportive of employees’ varying needs is important.
Meet with your organization’s learning and development leader to develop training opportunities regarding accessibility and inclusivity. Assess your organization’s understanding of varying abilities in the workplace and discuss how a lack of consideration can impact teams. Identify ways your team members can support each other’s varying abilities today and into the future. Your training may include discussions about language or jargon that’s commonplace in practice but harmful to others.
Initially, you may be met with resistance, as old habits are hard to break. Engage with a change management professional to help guide your training plan, implementation, and long-term reinforcement. A strategic and measured approach to managing change can help pinpoint potential risks and pair them with effective solutions. And when you’re managing behavioral change, it’s essential to plan for how you’ll address your team’s varying levels of engagement.
Create a Workplace That’s Welcoming to All
Understanding the needs of diverse individuals requires a thoughtful approach and a willingness to be vulnerable. At times, digging into the challenges of accessibility can be uncomfortable, as it’s often not addressed before it becomes a problem. Extend grace to yourself and others as you learn how to establish a workplace environment that’s inclusive and accessible.
Be transparent in your efforts to understand accessibility, educate your team on the subject, and address gaps in accessibility practice. Admit misses and oversights, using these situations as opportunities to start meaningful conversations instead of brushing them aside. Leaders willing to work through preconceived notions, outdated norms, and opposing perspectives can create work environments that are welcoming for all. Those who do can set the tone for the future of work, where accessibility is standard and everyone can thrive.