This July marked the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The passage of this bill marked the first time in history that federal legislation was written and codified to prevent discrimination against disabled individuals in all areas of public life.
Thanks to the ADA, individuals living with a disability can no longer be turned away from a job, denied housing or refused access to the same public and private spaces as the general public just because of their disability status. As we celebrate yet another year of this landmark civil rights legislation, it is critical that organizations reevaluate the accessibility and inclusivity of their workplaces to ensure they are supporting their existing disabled employees while also attracting diverse new talent.
An important first step for any organization is a willingness to recognize flaws in company practices that may be ableist or that unintentionally leave out workers with disabilities. Once these flaws are identified, an organization can create more inclusive practices that celebrate diversity and center the needs of disabled workers. A simple example of this: creating a company-wide diversity statement that goes beyond the minimum mandated as an equal opportunity employer by emphasizing accessibility as a core tenet of workplace culture. This statement should also include a definition of “disability” so more people can recognize they are included in the community. The ultimate goal should be to create a workplace culture where self-identification of disability status is encouraged and diverse identities are valued, included and respected.
Another example of how companies can better support their disabled employees is by requiring all staff members to undergo diversity, inclusion and accessibility training. This training can include guidelines for respectful workplace behavior, examples of appropriate language and terminology and tips for identifying possible microaggressions or biases. To take the commitment a step further, companies can also offer training in accessibility skills, such as closed captioning, braille and audio descriptions.
Employee diversity training can be an effective way to give employees without disabilities a comprehensive understanding of accessibility issues and help them become more aware of how their words and actions may impact others around them. It is also recommended that organizations encourage the formation of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) where employees with disabilities can openly discuss issues facing them in the workplace and find ways to discuss them with leadership or other non-disabled employees.
Ensuring that the workplace is physically accessible is another critical aspect of supporting disabled employees. This can be achieved through actions like simplifying the accommodation request process, investing in assistive technology for the office and removing physical barriers in the office that may prevent employees with disabilities from accessing the same spaces as their able-bodied coworkers. Offices should also ensure that they are compliant with ADA standards, which include minimum clearance widths for doors and hallways, minimum height requirements for desks and tables and the requirement of tactile braille lettering on all signs, just to name a few.
As the labor market continues to tighten and companies struggle to recruit new talent, organizations can also showcase their commitment to accessibility by reexamining their hiring practices. This could include providing training to hiring managers so they can conduct interviews with blind or deaf candidates, featuring more inclusive images on public-facing materials and reexamining job postings to highlight adaptive workspaces and remove any ableist language.
While the anniversary of the ADA is an ideal time to highlight the importance of accessibility and inclusion in the workplace, business leaders and HR executives should always be striving to celebrate and support their disabled employees. Companies working to reassess their hiring and workplace practices must do so by prioritizing the voices and perspectives of disabled workers first. This will ensure that any new policies or practices are supportive, appropriate and accommodating to the people they are designed to serve.