It's National Disability Employee Awareness Month (NDEAM), a month to celebrate those with disabilities in the workplace while showing support, and inclusive policies and best practices.
In 1945, Congress designated the first week of October as a time to acknowledge and honor the contributions of disabled people in the workplace. In 1988, that week was extended to a month, and October became NDEAM.
I have been lucky to find internships throughout my high school and college careers. This is primarily because of programs created with a work placement for visually impaired youth as their mission or due to wonderfully accommodating employers. Yet, I am still hyperaware of the many inequities my fellow disabled workers face. Let's explore. In the United States, laws like the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prevent discrimination against disabled people in the workplace and require reasonable accommodations for those workers. Despite these safeguards, disabled people still struggle to find employment. As of February 2022, the unemployment rate amongst disabled people was 33%.
With the world being heavily digitized, it still surprises me how many disabled people struggle to find jobs. Some of it comes down to inaccessible platforms. Another contributor is our increased reliance on AI to find employees.
Inaccessible Websites and Work Platforms
If you are reading this post, you are likely aware that there are protocols to follow when making an accessible app or website. You've probably heard about it in the context of alt-text on social media or the best way to keep shoppers coming back. But what about in the context of creating a smooth experience for your employees?
The websites that employees need for work, whether it's an internal platform or a public website, have to follow all of the same rules. Videos should not start automatically. (Autoplay can interfere with a blind user's screen reader). Videos should also have transcripts or close captions so that deaf employees are not excluded. In addition, all websites should be able to be navigated by a keyboard so that they can be accessed by users using various assistive technologies.
During the pandemic, when nearly all companies went online, that could have been an excellent opportunity for more disabled people to be brought into the workplace. And while that did happen in some cases, it did not occur in others.
I have a friend who was perfectly qualified for a job but struggled to navigate the company's intranet. It was his first day, so a learning curve should have been expected. I think it was, but not my friend's explanation of the platform being both new and inaccessible. The employer said he did not know what to do and that, perhaps, my friend wasn't a right fit for the position.
Lack of Internet
Another variable that impacts the high unemployment rate amongst disabled people is the lack of internet. Disabled people are 13% less likely to have internet access at home and 11% less likely to own a computing device. This happens because disabled people are often on a fixed income, and the internet and the devices that access it can be expensive and outside the range of a disabled person's budget. So then, disabled people are unable to get jobs. Still, they need work to get the assistive technology they need to navigate the internet. It becomes an unfortunate cycle.
Disabled People and AI
While the increased reliance on the internet can be a blessing to disabled people by providing increased job opportunities, it can also be a curse. With the internet also comes Artificial intelligence (AI). For example, we may love our Siri and Alexa, but their workplace counterparts are not programmed to love disabled people.
Companies that rely on AI to analyze candidates may turn away qualified applicants for traits they can't control. For example, a person who has a visual disability may be flagged by AI as not making adequate eye contact during the interview. Or, someone with a speech impediment may be penalized for not speaking clearly. Relying on AI as part of the hiring process can be a barrier to employment for people with disabilities.
Why Should You Make Your Workplace Accessible to The Disabled?
Aside from being a legal requirement under the ADA, it's the right thing to do for your company. Having a workplace that is accessible and inclusive of disabled people can enhance your company culture and your work. Your employees with disabilities will bring different perspectives and experiences and valuable skills from those experiences, like inventive problem-solving.
Everyone deserves the opportunity to work. It also assures your customer base, the disabled and able-bodied alike, that you care about more than profits.