Why organizations need a Chief Accessibility and Inclusion Officer

Over the past 20 years, the disability community has witnessed a steady increase in the number of businesses making equity statements as a way to communicate their support. They usually follow the refrains of ‘valuing differences and the creativity, productivity, and service excellence that people with disabilities offer’ or being ‘strongly committed to fostering diversity within our community’. Such statements are nice words but the disability community views them as empty ones when companies don’t have a practice framework to ensure that people managers live by them. Ensuring disability inclusion requires action – not just talk.

“But we have a diversity program” some have exclaimed when I make this point at meeting with employers. While diversity programs are great for raising acceptance of most diversity groups, they are seldom effective when it comes to people with disabilities. There are a few reasons for this.

The first thing is that, unlike groups based on culture, gender, religion, complexion and so on, disability is distinct in the way that its members tend to require adjustment to the work environment or how the work is done that goes beyond being tolerant and/or providing recognition for their differences. Employers must expend time and/or resources to remove accessibility barriers. The amount of resources required to make these adjustments depends on how the physical work environment, organizational culture and the function of the individual’s job interact with the employee’s disability and its severity.

Although it’s been said that the average accommodation cost less than $5oo, the price tag can sometimes go into thousands of dollars in cases that involve renovations or consumable accessibility services (e.g. personal support workers, Braille translation, audio transcribing, sign language interpreters, etc.). This creates a disincentive for employer that does not exist with the other diversity groups.

The second reason that including disability under the diversity banner is not effective is that disability is an individualized experience. Where people from one culture can use the diversity program framework to draw strength from others from the same group, people with disabilities to not gravitate towards others with disabilities on the basis that we are different from those who do not have one. This is even true when two persons share a similar disability. There is no bonding factors such as shared a language, folkways and/or values within the disability community – just shared behaviours. We with disabilities have stronger bonds with others from the cultures passed down to us from our parents than we do with other who have disabilities. (Note: Deaf Culture is the only exception among the disability groups because its members do have a shared language and values. All of which are passed peer-to-peer within the residential school setting.)

The final thing is that all cultures have their own way of responding – often negative – to the existence of a member who has a disability. While the views of people with disabilities has been generally sympathetic with cultural differences, the treatment people with disabilities has been, historically, that of over-institutionalization and being either shut out of the work force or segregation in the type of work we could be offered. As everyone knows, culture does not change overnight and certainly not with the creation of a diversity program or with drafting of an equity statement. So when disability is groups with the other diversity groups, its needs are commonly overlooked. (Those who disagree should ask a few persons with disabilities how high up the see disability sitting on the diversity totem pole!)

In view of the disability experience, which is something that most people without disabilities cannot fathom because it’s hidden from them, it’s not surprising that promoting accommodation policies and the use of equity statement do not encourage people with disabilities to be more open about their conditions. Nevertheless, becoming aware of this experience helps clarify why people in this equity group are reluctant to inform employers about their conditions when ever possible.
For the reasons listed above, employers seeking to build workforces that are truly equitable must create a framework that demonstrates not only their value for the talent and skills of people with disabilities but also that they have a process to integrate them in a manner that leads to opportunities to rise in the ranks.

To create such a framework, employers must take disability inclusion out from under the diversity umbrella and establish a program to address the issues that are unique to employees and job candidates with disabilities. Such a program would have accountability assigned to a Chief Accessibility and Inclusion Offer, preferably a person with a disability, who would have resources available to ensure the removal of barriers to not only accessing the environment but also to opportunities for advancement. Companies that create such a program would demonstrate that they are seriousness about fostering inclusion.

The opinions expressed in this article are my own and I do not claim that are consistent or reflect to views or policies of any organization that I’m currently work for or those that I have supported in the past.