How to create an accessible workplace for all: a guide for employers

4 minute read
Accessibility is often the forgotten child of diversity and inclusion but it's essential for creating a workplace where everyone can thrive. Anjali Byce, chief human resource officer at India’s largest fibre optics firm STL, shares her experience of conducting an accessibility audit, identifying areas for improvement and implementing changes that will benefit all employees

Group of diverse people including disabled people in the workplace

It’s been proven beyond doubt that diverse and inclusive organisations are typically more successful than those that aren’t. Report after report supports this, with one paper suggesting that diverse and inclusive organisations are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors and 70% more likely to capture new business.

The needle has moved significantly in the last few years, with almost 50% of employees now considering the companies they work for to be diverse. There, however, is still significant work to be done – especially when it comes to accessibility.

Accessibility is often the forgotten child when it comes to diversity and inclusion. There’s a stigma around disability that our workplace culture has struggled to eliminate and that can influence hiring and recruitment. The latest research suggests that around 30% of the workforce has a disability but not all of those disabilities are recognised or catered for.

Even if a business has a robust inclusivity policy and strives to create an accessible environment, some disabilities aren’t visible or are kept hidden, leaving those individuals feeling unsupported. Hearing loss, chronic pain, fatigue disorders, cerebral palsy and fibromyalgia are examples of physical disabilities that may go unnoticed by employers. Hidden disabilities can also be neurological, such as learning disabilities, autism, multiple sclerosis or epilepsy; or mental, such as depression, anxiety or ADHD.

Here's the thing. It’s not beholden on the individuals themselves to share their disability with their employer; it’s beholden on the employer to make sure their workplaces are accessible and inclusive for all. Accessibility should be woven into the culture of a workplace as a baseline provision.

Creating an accessible workplace

Of course, there will be some physical disabilities that rule a candidate out of performing a particular role, but organisations can still practice empathy and be accommodating to those individuals when it comes to company-wide policy and infrastructure.

One way of achieving this is by carrying out a full-scale accessibility audit. An audit will help a business identify opportunities for inclusion, as well as flaws in its current practices.

For instance, an audit could include a floor-by-floor layout of an office, factory, or warehouse, with detailed annotations on barriers that could be removed to make an organisation’s physical space more accessible. Such plans might include path widths, hard-to-navigate walkways, inaccessible areas, or areas with restricted entry. Plans can also include things like missing signage, anti-slip markings, wheelchair clearance, and even how visible things like light switches and access panels are for those with vision-based disabilities.

Again, it’s beholden on businesses to create an environment where individuals with disabilities can get on comfortably with their day, rather than the individual having to adjust their behaviour or regularly voice their needs.

However, it’s not just the physical environment businesses need to be concerned with when it comes to accessibility. Disabilities come in a variety of forms (visible and non-visible), so organisations need to think carefully about the technology they use and who might need to interact with it.

For example, take the default volume levels in a teleconferencing meeting. How far does that sound travel? Would it be easy for someone with impaired hearing to listen to the call and make contributions? If not, are there hearing assist devices readily available without an individual needing to ask for one? Are there live transcriptions so that meetings can be read as well as listened to? If an individual with a hearing disability constantly must ask for volume adjustments or go out of their way to find a device to aid them, then the organisation is alienating them whether it intends to or not. An accessibility audit can capture these elements, as well as the more obvious ones such as wheelchair ramps or lifts.

Learning from an accessibility audit

Inaccessibility is not an individual’s shortcoming but that of the environment in which they work. One of the best ways of ensuring accessibility for all is to carry out an accessibility audit – an objective, third-party overview of a premises that takes all accessibility requirements into account.

For instance, we recently carried out a disability audit on one of our plants in Dadra to help us identify accessibility issues in the build environment, as well as access to different types of job settings, facilities, safety protocols, independence, safety and performance. Here’s how we did it:

  • First, we identified the challenge, which was to make our plants accessible to those with speech or hearing impairments.
  • We then hired an independent third-party agency to conduct research on the current standards and guidelines for accessibility and inclusivity within our plant.
  • The agency then collected data through various means, including surveys, interviews, focus groups and direct observations of the work environment.
  • Once this data was gathered, the agency analysed it and identified key areas for improvement, both in terms of physical environment and accessibility and social and cultural integration.
  • They then delivered recommendations on how to improve accessibility and inclusivity for people with disabilities, with a particular focus on those with speech and hearing impairments (our main objective).
  • Once we received these recommendations, we held multiple meetings to discuss the findings. We moved to implement the recommendations and, crucially, monitor their effectiveness. One key change we made was to include alarm systems with lights as well as sounds, so that those with hearing impairments could be alerted in an emergency.
  • We continue to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the changes made based on the report and will adjust as needed. This will ensure that we continuously improve accessibility and inclusivity for people with disabilities.

As part of an audit like the one described above, a blueprint is often provided to map out the entire premises, making clear which areas are inaccessible (or not) to people with various disabilities. This can help an organisation to make important decisions on how to adapt its working environment, shining a light on areas that it might otherwise have been overlooked.

Audits can also offer a cultural critique of businesses, such as the kind of training they offer or should be offering to the entire organisation. Training is vital when it comes to creating awareness of various disabilities, as well as reinforcing the correct terminology and how to assist PwDs should it be needed.

Even the accessibility of the training itself will be carefully audited, ensuring that all individuals are able to partake easily. Is the training offered in sign language? Are the training areas accessible to all? If the training is offered digitally, how accessible are the digital services to individuals that have visual or auditory impairments?

Ultimately, accessibility is about equality. It’s about creating a working environment in which everybody can feel welcome and be themselves, without needing to constantly adapt their behaviour or wear their disability on their sleeve. If businesses can move to a more accessible workplace, they will begin to feel the benefits of a more diverse workforce all the more quickly, tapping into talent that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to find.

Anjali Byce, pictured below, is chief human resource officer at STL, India’s largest fibre optics firm and one of the world’s largest suppliers of fibre optics for major broadband operators

Anjali Byce, CHRO at STL, headshot

Published 27 September 2023
Enjoyed this story?
Sign up for our newsletter here.