Equity And Accessibility In The Workplace
When we discuss and make plans to promote the important issues of diversity and inclusion there are a few concepts that consistently rise to the forefront of the conversation. While cultural, gender and age-related challenges and those of racial and sexual identity exclusion are often considered, some concepts tend to get regulated into the background. Two of those are accessibility and equity, but they are equally important to consider when implementing a comprehensive diversity initiative.
When you think of accessibility, what comes to mind? Ensuring your place of business complies with the American with Disabilities Act?
Has your company considered other factors, such as the importance of web accessibility? You may have employees with neurological, visual or mobility impairment that find it difficult to operate your company-specific software which puts them at a distinct disadvantage. It might be a temporary condition such as a broken arm that doesn’t allow the user to manipulate a mouse. These scenarios should be taken into account to ensure inclusion.
In Michael Bach’s book, Birds of All Feathers: Doing Diversity and Inclusion Right, he explains, “Accessibility is often forgotten about when speaking about diversity and inclusion, but it is the missing link. You can have the most diverse workforce and the most inclusive workplace, but if anyone experiences barriers to access—be they physical, institutional, societal, or the like—then you haven’t ensured inclusion for all.”
I once worked with a large corporation on their diversity challenges, and the director who was tasked with choosing the software the company would use for the HR department thought she had made the best choice and stood by her decision. I questioned whether she had considered accessibility when making her choice, and she seemed ruffled at my inquiry. A short two weeks later, after a car accident which resulted in her temporary inability to see fine detail, she understood my concerns in a very personal way.
Accessibility also applies to opportunities, equipment (perhaps modified), cross-training, mentoring and something as obvious as making the interview process accommodating to everyone. Does your interviewee need a closed-captioned interview? Make that possible! Can someone apply via a teleprinter or teletypewriter (TTY) conference? Why not?
A second important focus is equity, which is easily confused with equality. To understand the difference, it might help to think of equality as giving everyone a house to live in. Equity, however, is giving people in the tropics houses that feature good ventilation, windows with screens capable of keeping out mosquitos, and sufficient shade from the heat. In contrast, you would give people who live in arctic climates houses with good insulation and an efficient heating source.
Although equality is a vital goal to strive for and is certainly better than not trying anything at all to level the playing field, it is simply not enough. It doesn’t take into account the individual and personal nature of each person’s struggle to feel as though they’ve had a fair shake.
In his article “5 Reasons to Focus on Workplace Equity Alongside Diversity and Inclusion,” Chiradeep BasuMallick clarifies when speaking on the fairness of corporate entities whose policies only focus on equality: “Equity, on the other hand, attempts to identify the specific needs and requirements informed by demographic traits such as ethnicity, nationality, age, gender, etc. It then tries to address the differing needs of each group by bridging the gap between minority and majority groups. This makes equity central to the genuine empowerment of minority groups (and not just theoretical equality).”
When an institution offers equity in the workplace, word spreads, and that kind of publicity and goodwill can’t be purchased. Employee morale, productivity and employee retention increase while associates not provided with equity can clearly see the reason to desert the (soon to be) sinking ship.
If your company makes it quite clear that it understands that while few obstacles exist for some in the organization, many obstacles exist for others, it can be a great recruiting tool and a fantastic way to keep everyone motivated. Correcting for the obvious (and subtle) disparities between different individuals can make the difference between a slog through the workday — while the employee spends all his free time looking for other employment opportunities — and an inspiring, spirited, focused contribution to the company for a full shift.
A theme that neatly dovetails with the subset concepts of accessibility and equity in the workplace is one of our main goals: inclusivity. If employees don’t feel seen or heard, the results are disheartening. In my experience as a leadership coach, one of the most soul-sucking experiences for colleagues of all levels in an organization is feeling like a cog in the giant corporate machine.
In the book Inclusify: The Power of Uniqueness and Belonging to Build Innovative Teams, Stefanie K. Johnson offers this insight: “Faking who we are to fit in is exhausting and we feel most at ease when we can just be ourselves. Even more to the point, we want to know that our unique talents are valued and that our voice is heard and respected. When we feel that these two drives — uniqueness and belonging — are in balance, we feel included.”
We all want to feel that our contributions are important, respected and special. If our workplace allows us the basic respects of equity and accessibility, it allows us to feel proud of the work we do, and that is a basic need that must be fulfilled.
This article has previously been featured on Forbes.