7 easy ways to improve accessibility in the workplace

Cartoon image of two colleagues, one of whom is blind, talking at work

Accessibility in the workplace means that all employees have the resources they need to carry out their job functions and daily tasks free from barriers. This could mean physical accessibility, like getting in the door. Or it could mean cognitive accessibility, like having what you need to perform complex job responsibilities.

Over one in four (27%) adults in the United States have some type of disability. Providing reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities is federal law. Yet, only half of employees that would benefit from an accommodation in the workplace ever receive one. Moreover, only 23% of job seekers said they would feel comfortable enough to disclose a disability to an employer.

We’ve got a long way to go before ableism recedes from our workplace cultures and infrastructure, and from society at large. Here are seven easy, cost-effective ways to immediately improve accessibility in your workplace.

Accessibility costs, benefits, and the law

To improve accessibility in the workplace, you must first fully understand the legal requirements. After that, consider how an accessible workplace is not just a matter of good ethics as well as meeting legal compliance; it’s also good for business. Studies have shown that employers experience multiple benefits from making workplace accommodations available.

The cost of accessibility

A 2022 study of workplace accommodations found that 85% of employers reported accommodations helped them to retain qualified, valued employees.

Employers often falsely assume that building access to the workplace for people with disabilities will be expensive. Yet, the study by JAN also found that 50% of employers that made accommodations incurred no costs at all.

Another 43% incurred a one-time cost of less than $300, and only 7% reported ongoing costs with a median annual expense of $3,750. That’s less than half of what companies spend on paper supplies each year.

The benefits of accessibility

Building an accessible and inclusive workplace through accommodations has a number of benefits for employers, like:

  • Increased employee retention
  • Increased employee productivity
  • Increased employee attendance
  • Improved relations with coworkers
  • Improved safety
  • Increased morale

Related reading: 7 ideas for celebrating Disability Pride Month at work

Laws regarding accessibility in the workplace

The principal law regarding accessibility in the workplace in the U.S. is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Implemented in 1992, the ADA is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities:

  • In employment
  • In state and local government services
  • In accessing the goods and services in stores, hotels, restaurants, stadiums, medical facilities, salons, etc.

Title I of the ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees. Title I bans discrimination in employment and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.

Definition of a disability. The basic definition of a disability used as of 2009 for ADA compliance is: A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. That said, disability is interpreted quite broadly without requiring significant scrutiny. Under the ADA, only applicants with disabilities are entitled to accommodations from employers. You’ll find more granular definitions from the Job Accommodation Network.

Disclosure. The ADA prohibits employers from asking job applications to take medical exams or inquiring about disability prior to a job offer. The person with a disability needs to disclose a disability in order to receive accommodation when the disability is not known or obvious.

It is also not required for the employer to ask if accommodation is necessary. Generally, the individual with the disability must inform the employer that accommodation is necessary. From the employer's side, all disability-related accommodation as well as medical information is confidential.

Creating a more inclusive workplace for people with disabilities

The ADA does not outline any required process, timeframe, or forms for implementing accommodations in the workplace. It’s up to workplaces to build these processes themselves. Having an available and transparent disability workplace inclusion policy and procedure increases the chances that employees in need of accommodation will request one. How can you be sure that happens?

1. Create written policies and procedures.

Specific policies and procedures for accommodation requests will make the process more transparent, accessible, and fair. Be sure to include:

  • Straightforward and flexible language
  • Time expectations
  • Identify the persons responsible

Sample forms for these procedures can be found here.

2. Write an accommodation statement.

An accommodation statement is an opportunity for employers to communicate their commitment to an inclusive and accessible workplace. It’s similar to a DEIB statement, but specific to disability accommodations. Such a statement can be included in job postings, employee manuals, and more. Here are some examples of accommodation statements.

3. Develop a procedure for the process for deciding reasonable accommodations.

The ADA does not offer a comprehensive list of reasonable accommodations. Start by asking what the employee feels they need. The employee’s medical provider is also a good resource for the employee's needs and options. SOAR offers a searchable database for accommodation ideas.

4. Ask the right questions.

When determining reasonable accommodations, ask questions to fully encompass the needs of the employee:

  • What limitations is the employee encountering?
  • How do such limitations affect the employee and the employee’s work?
  • What job functions are challenging due these limitations?
  • What accommodations are available to attenuate or remove these challenges?
  • How are you evaluating the efficacy of accommodations once in place?
  • What supervisors or other personnel need to know about these accommodations?

5. Train managers and supervisors.

Managers and supervisors must be trained on the policies and procedures for job accommodation. If managers wish to make changes to operations that may adversely affect an employee’s accommodation, new or different accommodations may be necessary.

6. Monitor and revise accommodations.

Employers and employees should communicate about accommodations regularly once they are in place. This will help to make adjustments necessary and ensure the success of the accommodation for the employee.

7. Actively recruit people with disabilities.

Take active steps to recruit people with disabilities, such as people who are neurodivergent. Review your application and hiring process to see where accessibility can be improved. Take a look at your building and facilities — can the job candidate literally get in the door?

Examples of accessibility and accommodation

Accessibility in the workplace is different for everyone. SOAR provides a comprehensive database of example accommodations. Here are just a few accommodations employers can make:

Dyslexia. An administrative assistant with dyslexia experiences challenges with writing and spelling. They may request that communication be done orally where possible and may use software to record meetings and conversations for note taking.

Deaf or hard-of-hearing. A deaf or hard-of-hearing employee may request automated captioning for online meetings. If automated captioning is not effective, then they may need Communication Access Realtime Translation Service (CART) or interpretation from a provider.

Cancer. Illness is a disability. Under the ADA, some employees need to take extra leave as a reasonable workplace accommodation. An employee with cancer may need to take leave for doctors appointments, for treatment, and to recuperate.

Accessibility in the workplace is inclusion

Imagine what it’s like to work in a place where you can’t get in the front door, you struggle to meet arbitrary time deadlines, you can’t join online meetings, or you can’t reach your desk. You’re going to feel (rightfully) excluded at work. Accessibility in the workplace is about communicating openly with your employees that have disabilities and having the right procedures in places to address their specific needs. It’s the law, but it’s also integral to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at work. Search through our resources for employers to learn more.
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