Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. While the day focuses on digital accessibility, I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about an important aspect of prioritizing accessibility in the technology that we build: creating environments that include disabled employees.

Understanding what disability is

One thing I wish more people would understand is that disability is not synonymous with accessibility. Whenever trying to explain disability—and the many different ways that people experience disability—I go back to a definition used by the World Health Organization (WHO):

In recent years, the understanding of disability has moved away from a physical or medical perspective to one that takes into account a person’s physical, social and political context. Today, disability is understood to arise from the interaction between a person’s health condition or impairment and the multitude of influencing factors in their environment. (archived)

Disability can be temporary, permanent, or dynamic (archive). A person may be disabled one day and not the next. Disability may be visible, invisible, or only sometimes visible. The “severity” of a person’s disability can fluctuate (no, it’s not a competition). Disabilities can, and often do, intersect and compound.

Everyone’s experience with and relationship to disability is unique. I experience disability in vastly different ways that others do, even among those with the same health condition(s) as me. Some of this is due to differences in how our conditions manifest, some is due to access to resources, and some is due to our environment or support network.

There’s not a tidy, TL;DR definition that tells you all the ways that someone might experience disability because so much is variable. The best thing you can do is listen to what disabled people are telling you about their disability or disabilities, respect it, and recognize that the person is confiding in you about something that is often very personal.

Discrimination and ableism

Despite disability being a protected class in many countries, discrimination against disabled employees is all too common. Misconceptions about what disability actually is feed into unintentional discrimination, though let’s be clear:

Unintentional discrimination is still discrimination.

Other causes of discrimination often include an inability to empathize with the experiences of the disabled employee, unwillingness to modify existing workflows or team dynamics to accommodate the disabled employee, refusal to prioritize the education of self or team about disability and and ableism, and/or uncertainty about legal boundaries.

While many companies implement code of conduct, diversity, and anti-discrimination training courses for employees, it is my experience that they rarely cover disability-related scenarios. This leads to managers and team members believing that so long as they make sure that a building has ramps and accessible bathrooms, they are being inclusive of their disabled employees.

Ableism is a different type of discrimination that favors those who are able-bodied. Ableist behaviors don’t “punish” disabled people for being disabled, they just “reward” able-bodied people for not having a disability.

Building a culture of disability inclusion

To build a culture of disability inclusion, you need to understand that accessibility is more than ramps. As a leader or manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that your disabled employees have an equitable experience to your able-bodied employees. To that end, here are some ways to start down the path of fostering a disability-inclusive culture:

  1. Educate yourself on disability, disability culture, and accessibility: Start with Alice Wong’s anthology of stories in Disability Visibility. Explore training available to you at your company.
  2. Listen to your employees (part I): Be aware that they may not use the word “disability” when asking for accommodations. Ask what they need to be effective, and go get it for them.
  3. Listen to your employees (part II): Ensure that team-building events or get-togethers don’t require additional labor or efforts on the disabled employee’s part in order to participate.
  4. Listen to your employees (part III): Respect boundaries that they set. A disabled employee may feel comfortable expressing needs, but not necessarily the reason behind them. You are not entitled to their private medical information.
  5. Set an example to the team: If your company has optional training around disability and accessibility, ask them to take it with you. Correct ableist language, behavior, and create an environment of psychological safety that allows employees to do the same.
  6. Perform regular self-reflection: Be aware that you likely have some internalized ableism (we all do!) and reflect on your ableist behaviors when pointed out to you. Understanding your own behavior is the only way to do better in the future.
  7. Expand your view: Disability takes many forms, and just because you can’t perceive it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Understand different types of disabilities—invisible versus visible, those that fluctuate, and how they can affect your employees and colleagues.
  8. Recognize intersectionality: Disabilities affect all populations. Learn how the intersectionality of different identities and disability changes a person’s experiences and needs.

Beyond ramps

Whenever I think about disability, accessibility, and accommodations, I think back to a request I made for accessible team get-togethers. I was very specific in my phrasing—that I get a day or so’s notice so that I could budget my energy, figure out a plan to ditch heavy objects, etc… The specifics got lost in the commonly-held interpretation of “accessibility”, which meant that I either did not join in team events or injured myself trying to. After repeated ignored requests for this simple accommodation, I gave in and detailed the complex calculus that goes into figuring out my days. Only then was my request understood and acknowledged. By then, it was too late and I had lost all trust that my needs would be respected without being subjected to an interrogation.

When we’re talking about people who get discriminated against regularly, trust is an incredibly precious resource. As leaders, colleagues, and friends, it’s important to recognize when we’re in danger of losing that trust and repair any damage we have done before we hit the point of no return.

On today’s Global Accessibility Day, please take some time to learn about the different ways to move beyond the ramp to a more comprehensive understanding of disabilities, accessibility, and how you can make your team an environment that is inclusive and accessible from the very start.