The pandemic has hit the disabilities community particularly hard. This founder of a startup that makes software more accessible warns that’s a major loss for your innovation. By Cat Noone
Everyone has been struck by the pandemic, but the individuals who typically fail to be taken into account in society and business have felt some of the harshest blowback of all. Diverse employees have been facing greater challenges, work-related stress, and fear for their professional futures more than non-diverse workers.
A million U.S. workers with disabilities lost their jobs between March and August last year, and by the end of 2020, the unemployment rate for the community reached 12.3% – nearly double the 6.2% national average. We need to be springing into action now to make sure the most vulnerable groups in society aren’t excluded from tomorrow’s workforce.
With a global recession underway, the odds are high that more people with disabilities will be unfairly forced out of a job. Figures from the previous recession in the U.K. show that disabled employees were significantly more likely than able-bodied staff to report increased workloads, a wage freeze or cut, and restricted access to paid overtime and training. In the U.S., companies have been paying disabled workers less than minimum wage for years.
With that said, it’s unsurprising that today’s most successful and impactful companies are the most diverse. Teams that are composed of people with disabilities can increase revenue by as much as 19% and make better and faster business decisions. It’s why IBM-which has been hiring people with disabilities since 1914-has a recruitment program targeting candidates from underrepresented groups. It’s why Google has pledged $20 million to nonprofits using technology to take on accessibility challenges, and why Microsoft has launched its Enabler Program to increase the employability of people with disabilities.
These giants aren’t just having conversations around inclusivity, they’re acting to remove exclusionary behaviors and encompass more groups of people. Taking all of that into account, here’s why hiring people with disabilities is a step toward a better normal, not just a new one that repeats the same systemic injustices:
Losing employee diversity is a major loss for your innovation
People fall in love with products in the same way they fall in love in general-we look for trust, familiarity, and a form of commitment. Just as we choose partners who are often a reflection of ourselves, products have to be an immediate reflection of the people that use them.
Love is strongest when it comes with something new, a feeling that excites us or offers us the chance to grow. In business, this means innovation. People with disabilities are some of the world’s greatest innovators, yet so many products are created without them in mind. Part of the problem is that teams aren’t comprised of people with disabilities, so they aren’t aware of their different audiences.
But your customers are more inclined to use a product when they see the people building it are a reflection of them. Why? Because you feel it in the character of the product. You feel it when a diverse group of people built a product or service, because it inherently accounts for a spectrum of individuals. After all, when you’re surrounded by others, you build compassion for them and their lived experience, and can eventually become an advocate for them. And when it comes to your product, once you see the obstacles people face relating to everyday products and accessibility, you can’t unsee them. That awareness pushes you to make more inclusive decisions, design with a broader perspective, and to apply that lens to all areas of business.
You may quickly find yourself wondering “why do we only depict able-bodied people in our marketing campaigns?” or “do our brand colors work for people with visual impairments?” These are the questions we should be posing from the very beginning, and that diverse teams ask the loudest.
Not accounting for the disabled population in design could mean more lawsuits
The current absence of people with disabilities in the workplace will lead to product development that is narrow (and non-compliant) in scope. As a business, you’ll ultimately have to fix this problem down the line, at a far greater cost. Perhaps because you’re being sued for a product interface that excludes the disabled, or because you’re facing a social media protest against a discriminatory ad campaign. Just look at Swiggy, one of the major food aggregators in India, which is having to respond to an online petition calling for the platform to include screen readers for visually challenged customers. So far, more than 27,000 people have signed.
Often, public exposure comes with much more expensive and long-term repercussions than a lawsuit. Retrofitting is expensive. You have to bake inclusive design and accessibility into your product from the very start, otherwise A. your customer acquisition will be limited and B. you could encounter legal repercussions in the future. In fact, between 2017 and 2018 alone, lawsuits filed for poor website accessibility increased by 177%.
Your product is a distillation of your work culture, team makeup, business mentality, and genuine stance on the mission you set out to achieve. And when you decide to make software that can help, it is your ethical duty to question who it, in turn, may hurt. Over the course of the rise in tech products, we’ve watched as individuals are subconsciously led to decision-making through unethical design patterns: the elderly struggle to access their medication because they couldn’t properly see the screen due to poor contrast, and the employee couldn’t participate in team collaboration because the communication software did not provide screen reader functionality.
It’s not lost that this work isn’t simple, but we cannot provide equity and access, without first acknowledging what we are accountable for in order to have true impact. If you need to revisit your product(s), break it open and rebuild to ensure nobody is excluded. It’ll be messy but doing so rightfully calls into question that culture, team, and mentality bedrock you’ve been building on. Remember, you can’t cater for what and who you don’t see.
People with disabilities can bring to light absences in your toolbox
Remote work isn’t a new concept for anyone, especially people with disabilities-in fact, it’s been a reality filled with difficulties and alternate solutions for years. Yet for people with disabilities, using software products that make them an afterthought has meant they’ve acquired an especially impressive set of skills. They’re also more familiar with ways to stay productive and healthy, which can massively benefit other people transitioning to remote work for the first time.
Still, businesses need to address barriers when it comes to remote tooling. Employees with disabilities experience friction points with current software products, and can’t capitalize on the education and workflows in the same way non-disabled workers can. The tools that have caught the most grief in the accessibility department are communication, web presentation, and collaboration apps. But in the digital revolution, people with disabilities have no choice but to use them anyway.
Your remote process in general will be incredibly enhanced if you work together with people with disabilities to gain a broader understanding of accessibility features. What’s good for one person also benefits others. The more comfortable and simple you make workflows, the easier and less stressful they’ll be for everyone on your team.
For example, there are some players that have made significant strides to be more inclusive. Google Hangouts Meet accessibility features include live captions (in different languages) and screen magnifiers. Grammarly has a tone detector feature to help users detect qualities of “friendliness” and “formality” in content. And Slack has screen reader integrations and keyboard shortcuts to help people with disabilities navigate the platform.
Diverse teams shape a constant rethinking of your work conditions
As a leader, you have to be conscious of the lengths people go to transition to a new work environment, and the possible psychological repercussions. Not all disabilities are visible; conditions like anxiety or depression in individuals are often hidden in plain sight. It’s likely they’ve become even less visible in the switch to remote work.
As employees are working more hours without realizing and reporting higher levels of stress, everyone’s mental health is suffering. For vulnerable groups like people with cognitive disabilities-who are more likely to have a mental health condition than the general population-and people with existing mental conditions, these negative trends pose a serious threat.
Having a more diverse team presents you with the opportunity to continually discuss how to be inclusive, inherently encouraging greater well-being across the board. With higher levels of satisfaction come better team morale and improved productivity. When your employees come to work fulfilled, driven by the mission, challenged, and feeling like they’re supported personally, they show up to work eager to improve. And that requires a company to see its employees for who they are.
To address the most critical needs of employees, businesses need to implement top-down, company-wide change. Budgets shifted with the change to remote work. No office space, fewer commuter passes, no fancy paid lunches, and overall a ton of money saved by employers. With that said, a great way to start invoking company-wide change is to invest in hiring efforts to expand people’s health benefits to cover care for mental health.
Deliberately expand the diversity of your talent by bringing on a Head of Diversity & Inclusion if possible, and make use of the multitude of resources available to help place individuals with disabilities into the workplace. The Workforce Development Board can connect you to skilled employees with disabilities. Your local American Job Center can provide assistance with recruiting and training diverse employees. The Employer Assistance and Resource Network (EARN) has a list of job posting websites targeted towards candidates with disabilities, or you could post a vacancy on Hire Autism, made for individuals on the autism spectrum.
On top of that, you should organize a virtual team retreat where employee voices are heard on how to make not only the services you provide but the company as a whole more inclusive and accessible to everyone. You could offer more vacation days or enact a more flexible vacation policy-while making sure direct reports are encouraging time off and ensuring there is no repercussion for doing so. You could offer employees subscriptions to online counseling services and stipends to help create a better workplace at home. Consider creating a welfare fund to support workers who are facing extra costs this year, or providing people with specialized equipment to work from home.
Diversity in a team inevitably fosters a more general acceptance for the ways different people work and live. People with disabilities can reveal realities to you that you’ve previously never been aware of-but that open mentality is only possible if you fight to keep them in the future of work, rather than cut them out of it.
Cat Noone is cofounder and CEO of Stark, the startup making the world’s software more accessible, and in turn compliant, by providing integrated tools that live inside the software designers and developers know and love.