Four corporate disability equity truths

Worn black piece of paper with white letters spelling TRUTH in a pothole on worn asphalt
Permanent improvements in disability equity are impossible without understanding and dealing with these categorical truths.

People with disabilities do not have access to equal business opportunities. If you don’t believe that, I ask you to look at Exhibits 1 and 2 — the unemployment rates for people with disabilities both pre and post-pandemic which took a bad situation and made it vastly worse.

To dismantle these barriers, every one of these truths below must be analyzed and addressed across the entire organization, not just the ones your organization is most likely to get sued over.

Fact #1: Your organization is under employing people with disabilities

  • The total number of people with disabilities in the US as a percentage of the population is around 18 %. More than 19 % of US college students report having a disability.
  • About 10.5 % of the population has a disability AND is aged between 18 and 65.
  • The federal government’s goal for employing people with disabilities is %.
  • There is precisely *ONE* American company currently achieving the federal government’s goal — Northrup Grumman.

Even organizations considered accessibility leaders like Google and Facebook haven’t reached the 7 % goal.

So unless you work for Northrup Grumman, chances are your organization is doing one or both of the following:

  1. Not employing enough people with disabilities;
  2. Not operating an organization where people with invisible disabilities feel comfortable disclosing them.

Many organizations cite a mythical “pipeline problem” as their excuse for having low rates of self-identifying employees with disabilities. Repeat after me: THERE IS NO PIPELINE PROBLEMTL;DR: There are only organizations who wish to delude themselves into making themselves and others believe that they don’t need to take action because the organization is not the source of the problem. Complete self-fulfilling fallacy.

The faster this fact is understood and accepted, the more quickly your organization can take action to resolving the bias that is causing your numbers of employees with disabilities to be so low.

Fact #2: Hiring a leader will not magically solve all accessibility/disability-related issues

Putting someone in charge of accessibility or disability may put a dent in some of your organizational issues.

  • Putting someone in charge of accessibility or disability is a good start.
  • Putting someone in charge of accessibility or disability with a budget is a better start.
  • Putting someone in charge of accessibility or disability with a budget and executive sponsorship is a great start.
  • Putting someone in charge of accessibility (on the product/IT side of the house) and a DIFFERENT person in charge of disability in HR, JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) and Customer Success with their own budgets and executive sponsors is an outstanding start and definitely a best practice for larger organizations.

The “may” and “some” qualifiers come from the fact that even the best accessibility personnel can only influence, not solve, accessibility-related issues.

  • Designers need to receive training, support, and the mandate to design accessible products.
  • Developers need to receive training, support, and the mandate to build accessible products.
  • Product owners need to make sure accessibility doesn’t get cut from product MVPs.
  • Hiring managers need to hire and retain employees with disabilities.
  • Customer success teams need to support customers with disabilities.
  • HR/JEDI need to make sure policies support disability equity and that reasonable accommodations can be requested easily.

If you have a single person in charge of disability and they are on the HR/JEDI side of the business, the chances are that they won’t know anything about technology or products. They won’t be able to train or influence designers or engineers in building accessible products. The converse is true as well — if you only put someone in charge of accessibility on the technical or customer sides of the business, it will be difficult for them to influence personnel issues.

The “some” qualifier comes from the fact that disability equity is the most intersectional, multi-dimensional, cross-functional category in existence.

  • Accessibility is only about products and narrow product-related items such as product documentation and product training.
  • Disability equity is about hiring practices, retention policies, benefits, onboarding, procurement, reasonable accommodations, training, communications, and support, to name a few areas.

Fact #3: Organizations hold very few people responsible or accountable for accessibility / disability-related issues.

Without responsibility and accountability, it is unlikely that the organization will achieve critical accessibility/disability-related issues improvements. Yet for the most part, only people whose entire position relates to accessibility or disability have these goals.

In truth, every employee should be responsible for ensuring

that their job is being performed in such a way

as to not hinder an accessible experience for a person with a disability.

  • There need to be goals at a minimum or OKRs (best practice) for each category of accessibility/disability-related issue being addressed.
  • There must be a service level agreement for the amount of time it will take to resolve accessibility issues and metrics on whether or not those SLAs are being met,
  • Performance reviews and bonuses must include these OKRs, goals, and SLA metrics.

As a best practice, Apple recently announced that accessibility is one of six core values that executives will be measured on and that 10 % may be added to or deducted from the executive bonus depending on how well that individual has performed in those areas. The other five areas included in this measurement are education, environment, inclusion and diversity, privacy and security, and supplier responsibility.

Fact #4: No one wins when you pit disability against another underrepresented minority.

Disability is intersectional, full stop. Men, women, veterans, LGBTQ, people of color — any of these individuals may also be disabled. If your organization focuses on events or retention policies on gender equality or hiring people of color, two things happen:

  • People with disabilities think, “what about us — don’t we count too?”
  • People who identify with multiple identities think that the organization doesn’t care about the disability part of their intersectional identity.

A rising diversity tide should raise all ships.

  • Don’t focus on individual underrepresented identities.
  • Focus on intersectional underrepresented identities.

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