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  • Tracy Keys

Changing Ableism into Accessibility: Why DEI Needs to Adapt to be more Equitable

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

Our practical guide to ensuring disability equity in your workplace



Though Corporate America has made significant progress in normalizing diversity training and education over the past few years, there is still a significant lack of awareness and education around accessibility, leaving approximately 20%¹ of the workforce – those with disabilities – out of the conversation when it comes to workplace culture. This month is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and as we at the Future Communities Institute (FCI) reflect on the importance of Disability Inclusion in organizational Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA)² programs, we wanted to share valuable insights from our collaboration with the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), which focused around the experiences of people who are blind and visually impaired in the workplace.


 

Authors’ note: The disability community is rapidly evolving to use identity-first language in place of person-first language. This is because it views disability as being a core component of identity, much like race and gender. Some other members of the community, such as people with intellectual and developmental disabilities prefer person-first language. In this report, the terms are used interchangeably.

 

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DEI programs are evolving to DEIA


There has been explosive growth in DEIA initiatives in companies in recent years as corporations take an active stand against issues of racism, social injustice, and systemic bias that have been plaguing our community, particularly underserved populations, here in the US. Whilst the DEIA function traditionally sat within Human Resources (HR) to address legal employment obligations, it is increasingly becoming a core business function, to not only avoid lawsuits and bad press but to better our society, be more innovative, and have a more motivated and engaged workforce.


Research shows that a diverse team can outperform a homogeneous team, and according to McKinsey, the business case for diversity grows stronger and stronger, with the latest study giving racially diverse and gender diverse executive teams a 36% and 25% greater likelihood of financial outperformance over the national industry median EBIT (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes) respectively (McKinsey 2019).


However, diversity in team membership alone does not deliver these team performance results. In order to allow people from many backgrounds and diverse identities to work together effectively, there must be trust and psychological safety within the team. This means that diversity initiatives must ensure all people are included at all levels, there is equity for opportunities and everyone has equal access to do their best. This is why companies must broaden their focus to pursue DEIA programs, not just diversity programs.


DEIA is a relatively new term, appearing in 2021 when President Joe Biden issued Executive Order (EO) 14035 on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce (The White House), which required all Federal agencies to have a formal strategic DEIA plan, and broadened the scope to include the concepts of Equity (including for disabled people) and Accessibility.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 4 people live with a disability (aka PwD), and the 2021 US Census data shows about 20%¹ of the working-age population have a disability. Of that 20% that are working age, less than one third are employed, compared to the 74.3% employed of the working-age population who do not have a disability³ (Bureau of Labor Statistics). This is a major reason why President Biden specifically highlights people with disabilities in the description of underserved communities in EO 14035.


Through the implementation of DEIA strategies, employees develop trust for each other and the organization, and a sense of psychological safety which is what is needed for people to achieve their best and bring their authentic selves to work.


Disabled people are being overlooked


Disabled people are often overlooked when it comes to DEIA efforts in the workplace. 90% of global corporations report being committed to diversity and inclusion efforts, but only 4% state having a disability inclusion focus (Global Disability Inclusion and Mercer).


Ableism, or discrimination against people with disabilities, is a pervasive and implicit belief that they are less capable than people without disabilities. Disabilities are stigmatized in our society, and this bias runs deep. This is why the Biden Administration explicitly added Accessibility to DEIA, so that ableism can be addressed and ultimately eliminated.


The numbers are quite stark and show how DEIA plans have previously failed to address ableism.


People with disabilities have consistently lower rates of workforce participation than their able-bodied counterparts (U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics) . (Center for American Progress ). They are also more likely to be living in poverty, less likely to have higher education, and were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of job losses, housing cost burden, and loss of net worth (National Disability Institute). Disabled persons score lower on employee engagement than every other minority group (Global Disability Inclusion and Mercer) and have reported anxiety both at home and at work.


Without specifically focusing on awareness and accessibility programs for disabled employees, ableist attitudes continue to discriminate and hold people with disabilities back from achieving their full potential, and organizations fail to enjoy the benefits of a truly diverse and inclusive workplace. Without including disabled people in your DEIA plan, it is incomplete (askearn.org).


Ableism also impacts blind and visually impaired people


Recently, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) released the Workplace Technology Study (WTS), a report examining how technology in the workplace influences the experiences of workers who are blind, have low vision, or are deafblind (AFB Workplace Technology Study).


Almost 500 participants (of which 323 were employed at the time of the study) shared their experiences with people, processes, and technology encountered throughout the employee lifecycle, from the disclosure of their visual impairment, and requests for workplace accommodations, to interactions with Information Technology (IT) staff, as well as experiences with telework.


“The findings in the Workplace Technology Study show us that many technology barriers still exist for workers with a visual impairment, despite nondiscrimination laws and guidance.” - Stephanie Enyart, Chief Public Policy and Research Officer at the AFB

AFB and FCI have partnered on a deep analysis of the study data to explore the work experiences from different personas’ perspectives, to highlight where current workplace practices and protocols have not met their intended marks, and to identify and address gaps to create a more fully inclusive workplace. FCI’s work focused mainly on people’s perspectives and workplace processes.


The analysis was finalized last month and identified marked differences in the perspectives of those who had been blind or had low vision most of their lives, compared to those who have recently become blind or developed low vision. These findings also show that people who are blind or low vision face ableism in the workplace. The sample size was quite low, so the findings are not generalizable but they certainly were revealing.


Like other disabilities, peoples’ experiences of blindness and visual impairment are very different. Some people are blind or have low vision from birth or most of their lives, for others, it is more gradual, and still others the impairment or loss of vision is very rapid or instantaneous. FCI explored the experience of people who had been blind most of their lives and those who recently became blind or developed low vision to see what those different groups could tell us.


Most people did disclose their visual impairment at the time of hiring, but 17% did not. Of people who had been blind or had low vision most of their lives, 86% did disclose their visual impairment, perhaps because it is part of their identity or disclosure is a necessary part of the hiring process. However, for those who did not disclose, 65% did not because they feared discrimination that would affect their employment.


42% of those recently blind did not disclose their visual impairment. 3 in 4 of those did not have a visual impairment at the time of hiring, so that is why they did not disclose it at that time. The other 25% who did not disclose did so because they feared discrimination.


More respondents feared ableist attitudes once they were employed.


1 in 4 were concerned that when they ask for assistance or request more information others think they are not capable because of their visual impairment, and the rate was almost twice that for those who had recently acquired a visual impairment (2 in 5).


A quote from one of the interviews in the WTS highlights issues of accessibility and ableist assumptions experienced in the workplace:


"When I cannot read materials [at work trainings], I can't participate. Sometimes people assume I can't participate because I'm blind, when the real issue is that the materials either were not provided or aren't accessible." - Anonymous participant

Once hired, ableist attitudes gave people pause to ask for accommodations to do their work. 2 in 5 people did not ask for accommodations as their vision decreased (43%). 1 in 4 have considered refraining from asking for accommodations for fear of backlash, and it was almost twice that for those who had recently acquired a visual impairment (2 in 5).


The infographic below highlights a selection of these insights.


An infographic with green leaves on the border and title, subtitle and three boxes highlighting insights from the Workplace Technologystudy. The title says "Despite growing need for accommodations, the threat of ableism is a barrier to many . The subtitle says "1 in 2 reported decreased ability to read print, and 1 in 3 of those expect significant vision changes in future. " The left most box says "2 in 5 people did not ask for accommodations as their vision decreased". The center box says "1 in 4 have considered not asking for accommodations for fear of backlash, and ( 2 in 5 for those with a recent visual impairment)" and the right most box says " 1 in 4 worry that when asking for assistance others will  think them less capable  ( 2 in 5 for those with a recent visual impairment)"
Selected insights from the Workplace Technology Study


Our guide to addressing discrimination in your workplace


So what can organizations do to eliminate ableism and ensure equity, workforce engagement, and satisfaction for their employees with disabilities, including those who are blind or low vision?

By creating a workplace culture that is open, inclusive, and accessible for all employees, organizations can create a space where employees and job candidates feel comfortable self-identifying as a person with disabilities. Once employees feel comfortable self-identifying, the organization can begin to track accessibility and inclusion practices in both hiring and employee statistics, as well as overall DEIA practices.


Organizations could and should make disclosure confidential (or even anonymous) and centralize accommodation requests and the accommodation budget within the HR department (to keep this process separate from the employee/manager relationship).


DEIA programming should be broadened to focus on equity and accessibility in order to eliminate any stigma around people with a disability and squash ableism.


Askearn.org has helpful guidance on the Executive Order and a framework for disability inclusion in the workplace and we wanted to share our practical tips for establishing an inclusive strategy and culture, the first step in the process.


To embed this culture and make your workplace inclusive of employees with disabilities,

we recommend you:

  1. Encourage requesting reasonable accommodations and ensuring accessibility for your employees is a must-do and the essential bare minimum. Check out askjan.org the Job Accommodation Network for practical information and advice on disabilities and accommodations you can provide.

  2. Establish employee resource groups to provide support, and mentorship and encourage pride amongst employees who are blind, visually impaired, deafblind, and other forms of disability pride.

  3. Ensure that bias training (at all levels) specifically includes ableism.

  4. Model disability pride as leaders. When leaders self-identify, it can be incredibly powerful for employees.

  5. Consider using something like DisabilityIN’s disability equality index to compare your organization to your peers.

  6. Ensure DEIA objectives are set in the performance plan of every employee and measure success.

  7. Regularly conduct an audit of DEIA programs, hiring practices, employee statistics, and other measures of success.


Together we can do better


Whether intentional or unknowingly, the ableist attitudes of our society are severely impacting the work experiences of disabled people, including blind and low-vision people, resulting in lower employment rates, lower employee engagement, and overall greater levels of anxiety. These negative experiences are even more prevalent during times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic.


Companies and organizations can make some simple yet highly effective changes to employee engagement programs, most notably broadening DEI efforts to DEIA efforts, to eliminate ableism and create a far more equitable and accessible workplace. Taking a page from the White House Executive Order 14035 will help organizations ensure their noble DEIA efforts include people with disabilities and make ableism and other forms of discrimination against underserved populations a relic of the past.




 
Footnotes

1 2021 American Community Survey 1 year estimate S1810 percentage of people aged 18-64 with a disability is 20.1%

2 In order to support the new direction outlined by The White House in Executive Order 14035, we use the term DEIA on our site, but please note that outside of the Federal government, the term Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is commonly used.

3 Bureau of Labor Statistics September 2022 Disability Laborforce Statistics for persons aged 16-64

4 U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics Table A-6. Employment status of the civilian population by sex, age, and disability status, not seasonally adjusted September 2022, September 2021

https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t06.htm

5 Center for American Progress “Removing Obstacles for Disabled Workers Would Strengthen the U.S. Labor Market” May 24, 2022

6 National Disability Institute analysis of American Community Survey in the August 2020 report “Race, Ethnicity and Disability:The Financial Impact of Systemic Inequality and Intersectionality”

7 “The State of Disability Employment Engagement” Report by Global Disability Inclusion and Mercer

8 FCI analysis of United States Census Bureau Household Pulse Data Employment Table 2 and Health Table 2a Weeks 31-49 inclusive





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