If a company's diversity, equity and inclusion initiative doesn't include digital accessibility, it's not complete.
Digital accessibility is an important issue that HR leaders must understand so that their companies can recruit and retain employees with disabilities. In some cases, making tech digitally accessible is necessary to comply with the law.
People with disabilities are a historically overlooked part of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, said Jonathan Hassell, founder and CEO of Hassell Inclusion and lead author of ISO 30071-1, an international standard for the creation of accessible digital products. Companies must remove the "brick wall" that job applicants or employees with disabilities are unable to surmount. A training video won't help an employee who has difficulty hearing if the video doesn't include captions.
In this interview, Hassell discusses the basics of digital accessibility and what HR professionals should consider.
To set a common understanding, what does digital refer to?
Jonathan Hassell: Digital can refer to things like Zoom, email, communications tools [such as Slack] or online timesheets. Digital tools can be the specific tools for your job, but then also the tools that everybody uses, like an intranet -- any place where you would go to find out company policy information, that sort of thing. So that's the digital that we're talking about here from an HR perspective -- all of your digital life as an employee.
What is digital accessibility for employees and what should HR know about it?
Hassell: Accessibility is really all about how to make sure that you're not excluding people from being able to access all of those digital tools -- being able to navigate around the information, find what they're looking for, actually understand what they're looking for. If the example was a video, and I had difficulty hearing, captions would be the sort of thing that would really help me. If I were blind, and I was using a screen reader to move around the computer, [then it means] making sure that whatever tools I need were coded in the right sort of way so they work with that screen reader.
What are the legal requirements around digital accessibility for employees that HR professionals should be aware of?
Hassell: In the U.S., there's the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most countries have some form of disability discrimination act. So here in the U.K., it would be the Equality Act . What [those acts say] is that people shouldn't be discriminated against based on their disability for their ability to apply for jobs, to be selected for jobs and for them to be able to thrive in those jobs.
An organization can use the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, or VPAT, to summarize how well their product supports the needs of people with different types of disabilities. For example, there is a VPAT for Zoom, and there is a VPAT for Microsoft Teams.
How does employee digital accessibility fit into a company's DEI strategy?
Hassell: Disability should be part of diversity and inclusion. [With] diversity, equality and inclusion, there are a number of protected characteristics, [and] disability is one of those characteristics that, unfortunately, sometimes has gotten forgotten in the past.
So during recruiting, everything from a job ad to a Zoom interview needs to be accessible?
Hassell: Yes. The way of thinking about it is to think about barriers -- anything that can slow you down or stop you from getting to your goal.
It's really important for the job site itself to be accessible, because if I can't apply for the job, then that's my block. That's my brick wall that I can't get over. Even before that, somebody with a disability might go to the [company] website. It's a problem if they can't look around the website to see what the company does because it's not coded in the right way, or it's not colored in the right way for them to be able to see it clearly if they have difficulty with their eyesight or are blind. In that case, they automatically would say, 'Actually, if that's the sort of experience that I might get within the company...'
A lot of people [who] are neurodiverse -- so these could be people who are dyslexic or autistic -- have a real sensitivity to color, and one of the colors that they find really off-putting is a really bright red. So if you interview that person in a room which is painted red, they are not really going to be performing at their highest level, and it would be the same if that was a Zoom background or a Teams background.
What first steps would you recommend HR take to address digital accessibility issues?
Hassell: When you say you are committed to digital accessibility, mean it. Lots of organizations publish commitments around diversity, inclusion and equality, but may not follow through into action.
How can companies commit in a tangible way?
Hassell: It's important to be honest and transparent about what these commitments will require. Committing to digital accessibility costs money, it costs resources, it costs people's attention. Most organizations aren't neglecting disability and accessibility and their DEI strategies because they don't care about it.
Lots of organizations out there know that neurodiversity is actually something that may have some real benefits for them as an organization, but they're not totally sure what to do about it. So [you need a] plan which is actually achievable within the culture of the organization.
What does this all mean in the context of the Great Resignation and more employees working remotely?
Hassell: We're finding that a lot of organizations are getting into accessibility because they want to be more purpose-driven. People who have a choice where they want to work will tend to work for organizations with a purpose that feels very positive for them, and it's a real PR win for an organization to not just say that they care about disability as part of inclusion, but actually demonstrate that.
Jonathan HassellFounder and CEO, Hassell Inclusion
We work with lots of organizations, and a purpose and sustainability agenda is becoming massively important for them. Organizations that maybe weren't particularly interested in digital accessibility a few years ago are now saying, 'That's the way to get us the right talent.'
The hybrid [work] situation is really interesting, because a lot of people with disabilities were actually asking to work from home years before the pandemic. The question now is, what happens? Are employers going to force them back into the office or are they going to stick with a much more hybrid model?
We worked with one organization that tried to make sure that anybody with a disability had a buddy [who is] there to help them evacuate the building in an emergency. If you have a disability, you need to make sure that your buddy will be in the office before going back in. Without that buddy, the office is not a safe environment for you.
Accessibility may not necessarily always be easy. There may be a lot of things to think about. But it really is worthwhile. The benefits, I think, are quite large and very well proven.
Editor's note: Responses were edited for length and clarity.
Molly Driscoll is a site editor at TechTarget and covers HR and ERP software.