One of the most crucial factors in the success of any business is its employees. You want the best you can find: talented, dedicated people interested in what you do. Some of the right candidates for your team will have disabilities. Even if you don’t intend to rule out these candidates, if your workplace isn’t accessible to them, they won’t be able to accept your offer. So how do you build an accessible workplace for everyone?
Legal requirements shift over time, and they aren’t always enough. So when you look to create an accessible workplace, don’t ask what the legal minimum is. Ask what will make your workplace as easy to navigate for disabled employees as it is for the rest of the team. Often, these adaptations can end up being positive changes for everyone.
Accessibility for Mobility Challenges
The word “accessibility” often prompts a mental image of your building entrance: can someone using a wheelchair make it into the building? That’s a basic zero-level accessibility concern. If your employees can’t even make it into the door, you can’t attract the best employees and you’re probably not compliant with the law either.
But after you’ve made sure entrances and exits are accessible—meaning ramps, elevators, power doors, and wide enough corridors—there’s so much left to do. Consider how your office or shop is laid out. Can a wheelchair pass through every doorway and necessary gap? Are floors too slick to safely walk with a cane? Is there an accessible restroom that’s actually near your work space?
Part of this work is ongoing. Clutter in the office, chairs left pushed out, doors halfway blocked—any of these may make your well-designed office inaccessible. Make sure all employees know to remove these blockages.
In addition to making sure your physical office space is accessible, be generous with remote work requests. The ability to work remotely can save a disabled person hours of every day. It can also allow chronically ill employees to work from bed on bad days. Don’t sacrifice your team’s productivity in the name of having everyone in the same physical building. Some of your employees may be drastically more productive from home!
Necessary adaptations for blind or deaf employees may not be obvious to you. If your business is large, it makes sense to hire a firm to go over your business and help you acquire all the tools you need, from Braille signage to lighted fire alarms. If you are hearing and sighted, you likely won’t know what tools are necessary.
However, if you’re a small business, it may make more sense to simply ask your disabled employees what they need. Make sure they know that they are allowed to ask for anything that will make their job easier. Paying for the right software or hardware for them to use is a small price to pay for making them comfortable and able to do their best work.
Again, keeping a tidy office is vital for allowing blind employees to navigate. Make sure your office is open to service dogs, and leave room for the service dog to rest.
In all important communications, whether meetings, virtual meetings, or announcements, try to make sure all content is available in both audio and visual format. This can include providing alt-text for slides, auto-captioning for virtual meetings, or seating in the front so an employee can lip-read. It can be all too easy to allow disabled people to be sidelined or left out of important communications because it was difficult to include them. But if the meeting weren’t important, you wouldn’t have called it, would you? Make sure everyone can participate in every meeting of their team. You can even change the whole format of the meeting to make sure it is one all parties can participate in. For instance, a written conversation on Slack might be easier for a team where one or more of the members is deaf or hard of hearing.
In recent years, the concept of neurodiversity is bringing new insight to conditions like autism and ADHD. Instead of assuming everyone thinks the same way, with some exceptions, we can understand that minds vary widely.
Even within one single condition, like autism, individuals may not need the same accommodations. As always, the gold standard is what your employee asks for. But a few accommodations that make a workplace more neurodiversity friendly include:
- Making a workplace sensory friendly, such as by keeping noise levels down, switching lights to LEDs or other non-flickering lights, and placing desks where workers don’t have clutter or action in their line of sight while they are trying to work.
- Putting all important instructions in clear, unambiguous language. It can also be helpful to follow up an oral instruction with a quick email so the employee can reference what was said.
- Adapting to different communication styles. Some autistic people are very blunt; don’t mistake this for rudeness. People with ADHD, by contrast, may prefer a long back-and-forth conversation to brainstorm or clarify things.
- Putting more emphasis on work being done rather than the attitude or team spirit a person seems to be showing. An employee who seems to have a “bad attitude” may simply not interact in a way you’re used to.
- Not interrupting a worker who is currently focused and on task. Some employees may struggle to reach a focused state, so once they get there, leave them to it!
- Talking to a neurodivergent worker who is struggling sooner rather than later. It may be they need clearer instructions, the work broken down into steps, or an obstacle removed.
- Letting a neurodivergent worker focus on the work they came there to do. Requiring social activities can feel like a distraction from the work they shine at.
A Few Important Points
Remember that, in the end, the beneficiary of all workplace accommodations is you, not the employee. You’re the one who wants work to be done, and you will achieve that best when your employees are accommodated. So don’t see any of this as a favor you do for your employees. It’s no more of a favor than giving an abled employee a computer or a chair.
Employees, especially new or prospective hires, may not feel comfortable asking for the accommodations they need. So, as the employer, it’s up to you to start that conversation when you learn someone is disabled. Since they do not have to disclose that information in an interview, and you legally cannot ask, consider saying instead, “We are a disability friendly workplace, so let us know during your onboarding if there is anything you need.”
After they disclose a disability, that is the time to have a conversation about their access needs. Ask what accommodations they used at previous jobs and what might help them do better. Make sure employees know that they can talk to you about their access needs at any time and that it is not a bother. You can show your openness by learning about the right terms for disabilities and having a positive attitude about any accommodations you are already making.
Also make sure other employees do not undermine the work you’re doing by making disabled employees feel unwelcome or like a burden. If you hear someone complaining about the extra work of providing alt text, for instance, invite them to talk to you about it instead of airing their grievances in front of everyone. With a positive attitude from you, your team will eventually realize that providing an accessible work environment gets the work done best.
How Is Your Business Doing?
As a business owner, you wear a lot of hats, from managing employees to keeping an eye on cashflow. If you need a second pair of eyes on your company, a business financial advisor can be a powerful ally. To connect with the right advisor for you, contact us today.