Be inclusive by design: Disability-friendly organizations perform better

When digital technology became widely available, organizations fell over themselves to improve internal efficiencies with new tools.
When digital technology became widely available, organizations fell over themselves to improve internal efficiencies with new tools.


  • Assistive software tools can be used to create inclusive and accessible workspaces for everyone. There’s a reason why organizations that enable the differently abled score productivity gains.

There are nearly 1.3 billion people with a disability in the world—60 million of whom live in India. And yet, despite various statutory and regulatory measures that have been put in place to integrate them better with society, most still face significant challenges when it comes to finding gainful employment.

This is somewhat surprising, considering that companies that offer opportunities to people with disabilities have been able to realize 1.6 times more revenue, 2.6 times more net income, and 2 times more economic profit. Not only are people with disabilities ideally suited to fill recruitment gaps, given that they tend not to seek new jobs every few years, they form a more stable workforce, generally speaking.

In India, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act requires private establishments to publish equal-opportunity policies that detail the facilities and amenities put in place for persons with disabilities, the positions in the organization that are suitable for them (as well as how to apply for job selection), the training it will provide, and also the measures taken for barrier-free accessibility (such as assistive devices, etc).

Also read: Pick of the week: Steps to a more inclusive workplace

While many organizations have put these policies in place, few actively implement them. Most establishments lack the facilities that people with disability need, forcing them to rely on their colleagues for even the most basic activities. 

This being the case, it is little wonder that employers are loath to make offers to people with disability. Employers seem to fear that they may have to designate other team members to help them with even the smallest of tasks.

One might have thought this is exactly the sort of problem that digital technology would be able to solve. To the contrary, rapid advances in computational technology have made it harder than ever for people with disability to integrate themselves into the modern workforce.

When digital technology became widely available, organizations fell over themselves to improve internal efficiencies with new tools. But they failed to pay enough attention to whether the digital improvements they implemented were broadly accessible. As a result, the widespread use of these technologies has, if anything, worsened the hardships suffered by individuals with disabilities.

So what can organizations do to make their workplaces more accessible?

In the first place, organizations need to adopt a user-centred approach for the design of their digital interfaces. This would mean involving people with disabilities in the design process, so that their requirements can be adequately reflected in the final product. 

In many instances, this could be as simple as incorporating into the technology additional features, such as audio descriptions (to help people with visual impairment understand visual content), closed captions (to enable deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to follow conversations), and high contrast modes (to make it easier for people with visual impairments to navigate digital interfaces).

But, by far, the most important change an organization can make is enabling the use of assistive technologies in as many aspects of its operations as possible, so that people with disability have every chance to function on par with their colleagues. 

For instance, all it will take to unlock digital content (websites, documents and mobile apps) for persons with visual impairment is enabling the use of screen-reader technology—simple software applications that convert all text and menu functions on a screen into sounds. This allows them to ‘read’ this digital information with their ears.

Also read: Why flexible work modes suit disabled employees

This by itself is not enough. Screen-readers are only useful if the websites and applications they are applied to conform to well- established accessibility standards. If, for instance, the page being ‘read’ is largely composed of images, it will remain illegible to persons with visual impairment unless the images are accompanied by descriptions of what can be seen for a screen-reader to articulate aloud.

If an organization wants to be truly accessible, it needs to operate with this level of attention to detail. When it procures software, it needs to ensure—whether or not its staff includes persons with visual impairment at the time—that it meets the accessibility standards set out by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This way, a business would be proactively inclusive, rather than having to try fixing accessibility shortcomings only once a new employee with disability joins.

Organizations that have taken measures like these have already been able to unlock tremendous benefits. By offering wide accessibility in a thoughtful manner, they have made it possible for employees with visual impairment to engage more fully in the workplace without always having to rely on colleagues for assistance. 

This, in turn, has given employers the confidence to use them for a wider range of tasks without having to worry about the need to make special arrangements to accommodate their impairment. 

What’s more, since screen-readers let people with visual impairment multi-task (as they can simultaneously receive auditory feedback and perform other tasks), they can significantly improve their job productivity and compete on a more equal footing.

Also read: Why we need more mental health inclusion in the workplace

Integrating people with disabilities into the workforce is much more than just a social responsibility. Organizations that manage to do it properly are likely to unlock tremendous commercial value.

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