Six actions that will destroy disability/diversity ally credibility

Eight people of different races and genders holding hands up in the air
Believe me when I say that for all underrepresented communities, including disability, actions speak WAY louder than words.

Most organizations want to claim they are inclusive.

You don’t find many that proudly shout publicly that they intentionally exclude underrepresented minorities, such as people with disabilities.

Despite this, there are many actions that employees at these same companies take which completely undermine corporate disability inclusion claims. Those ableist, uninclusive employee actions speak much, much louder than the organization’s words.

Not calling out ableism.

You automatically lose your disability ally card if you are present for ableism, but never call it out. In order to do this, allies must be able to accurately identify what is ableist. Some innocuous or positive-sounding statements can be ableist.

Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be “fixed” and are not equal to non-disabled individuals.

Basic ableism consists of people saying something to the effect of “you can’t do X because of your disability.” But ableism also includes:

  • Inspiration porn — portraying people with disabilities as either inspirational solely or in part based on their disability, or one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.
  • Failure to use language requested by people with disabilities to describe their disabled identities. Referring to me as wheelchair-bound or someone else as a “person with Aspergers” when they have stated they identify as “autistic” is unacceptable.
  • Including irrelevant physical requirements in job descriptions. There is no reason why a programmer needs to be able to sit for 4 hours or be able to lift 20 lbs. Job descriptions requiring unneeded drivers’ licenses are also ableist. Irrelevant physical requirements deter people with disabilities from applying, contributing to the astonishingly high unemployment rate
  • Assuming that people with disabilities are willing to or even want to ask for help if they run into an accessibility barrier.
  • Deliberately lower expectations for people with disabilities than people without disabilities. Praising someone with a disability for doing something that a person with a disability wouldn’t be praised for is ableist and inspiration porn, even though it is praise.

Not asking about accessibility needs.

When people inquire about accessibility needs as part of a regular course of business, it sends two messages:

  • to persons with disabilities, the message accessibility needs are NOT “special needs,” they are integrated into how business is done
  • to persons without disabilities, the person inquiring (and possibly the entire organization) supports disability inclusion.

It doesn’t take more than “email X if you have any accessibility needs” at the end of invites and messages.

Inaccessible events

Inaccessible physical and online events send a subtle but strong message that “we don’t care enough about you to make an effort to include you.” That is the absolute OPPOSITE of inclusion. Some of the most common ways meetings can lack inaccessibility include:

  • Lack of captions. Captions are a fairly easy solution to implement but do require some thought and preparation. You can:
  1. Use Teams or Google Meets, where captions are always available,
  2. Integrate an auto-captioning system into Zoom or other tools where captions aren’t automatically available, or;
  3. Arrange for live captioning.

By making one of these three choices, you are more inclusive of people with hearing loss and individuals who learn more visually and English language learners. The presence of transcripts after the captioned event means people who missed the event can find what they are looking for faster, by searching through the transcript then going directly to the part of the recording where their search term is discussed.

  • Inaccessible presentation materials. You always need to run the Powerpoint accessibility checker. If you know you have people with disabilities attending a meeting, offer to send the deck out in advance.
  • Physically inaccessible in-person meetings. There can be many sources of physical access issues, large and small. I discuss them in-depth in this article titled Running Accessible Meetings and Events.
  • Inaccessible activities at either online or in-person meetings. Examples include using Miro or Figma in breakout rooms, inaccessible games, and activities that require one interpreter to be in multiple places at once.

I recently published an article in Diverseability Magazine on how accessible things can become inaccessible through nothing more than normal use. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that accessibility is one and done. Accessibility is a program, not a project, and must be checked for every event.

Inaccessible Communications

Inaccessible communications are another way of excluding people with disabilities. Inaccessible social media posts are included in my category of “inaccessible communications.” Common sources of communications inaccessibility include:

  1. accessible emails with inaccessible attachments.
  2. emails with informational graphics that have embedded text or no text descriptions.
  3. emails using inaccessible color or font choices.
  4. uncaptioned videos or videos that should have a described audio soundtrack available.

Using an overlay to “solve” website accessibility issues

If you have an inaccessible website, will the situation be improved by using an overlay?

That’s a big NOPE.

The title of the first of many articles I wrote on this topic was called Overlays Are Not the Solution to Your Accessibility Problems. Overlays do not do what their marketing material claim to do, which is make sites compliant with a single line of code. I have yet to see an inaccessible site magically become accessible by using one of these tools. It’s not just me being fussy. Ten percent of today’s US digital accessibility lawsuits are being filed against companies using overlays as their “accessibility solution” rather than fixing their underlying code.

I am a signatory with almost 400 other accessibility professionals to In addition to containing a list of reasons not to use overlays, also contains a list of accessibility professionals advocating against the use of overlays.

Using an overlay is a de facto admission that you aren’t really interested in the needs of your customers and potential customers with disabilities.

Credible disability allies don’t use customer-facing accessibility overlays, widgets, plugins, or tools.

Inaccessible Surveys

Running an inaccessible survey sends a message “we’re interested in everyone’s opinions … except the opinions of people with disabilities.”

Surveys are an important part of a product lifecycle. You can get essential customer experience feedback via surveys. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article identifying the twelve most important accessibility considerations in constructing a survey.

There are plenty of accessible survey options: Google and Microsoft forms, Survey Monkey, SurveyGizmo, and Qualtrics, just to name a few. Using an accessible survey option is a sign of a true disability ally.