At the end of June, we highlighted different steps that business owners could take to ensure a smooth reopening. Among our suggestions, we promoted the continued usage of hybrid work models to maximize employee and patron comfort. In addition, maintaining the technological advancements in the workplace developed during COVID allows business owners and entrepreneurs to reach an even wider audience through increased accessibility. But outside of this context, how often do we consider accessibility in business?
This article will highlight the importance of increased accessibility, the benefits of doing so, steps to create a more accessible business, among other suggestions to help your business reach a broader client base.
The importance of accessibility
An August 2020 New York Times article found that virtual environments have allowed disabled people to be ensured a place in classrooms, club activities, and social events where they may otherwise face barriers due to a lack of accessibility.
“Accessibility is, in one sense, about having options: to participate or not participate, on your own time and in your own way,” said the article, referencing how virtual environments allow more options for those involved.
Many, however, fear that the improvements in accessibility— which prior to the pandemic were “impossible,” “too complicated,” or “too expensive” to establish for disabled people — will revert as life becomes safer with increased vaccinations and gradual herd immunity.
Despite one in four Americans having some type of disability, the disabled community is a historically underserved portion of the population. Disabled people are never prioritized to the extent they should be, and to retract the now-established accessibility aids once things return to “normal” is another example of that lack of prioritization.
Reaching a broader audience
If we learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that connections are what keep us together. The connection within a community is what keeps local businesses afloat, and what keeps us from feeling isolated. Though we were apart for over a year, technology allowed us to stay in touch with the people we missed and the services we needed.
Businesses can take inspiration from the lessons we learned during the pandemic. For example, many businesses now understand the importance of technology to reach out to their audiences and establish stronger connections with their patrons. By doing this, you can let your customers and clients know that you and the service you’re providing are dependable and working hard to earn their trust. Where previously business could only be conducted in one place, face to face, it can now happen anywhere, anytime, thereby maximizing the number of people reached.
A more user-friendly application process
Using the technology developed during the pandemic, business owners can ensure accessibility by making the application process easier for potential new employees. A 2015 Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology survey showed that 46 percent of respondents found online job applications difficult to navigate due to timeout restrictions and screen contrast.
Further, many have issues because “images that conveyed information…did not have alternative text for individuals using screen readers,” or videos or audio instructions were not closed captioned. These problems are only accentuated by a lack of information on how to request accommodation.
Reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics have found that disabled people are less likely to be employed than their abled peers. When considering the strides to expanding workplace equity, the Americans with Disabilities Act is a relatively new piece of legislation, and disability justice has a long way to go.
Disabled people still face an immense amount of discrimination and lack of care from the state, which limits the funds disabled people can legally have under threat of losing Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid, despite the oftentimes monumental cost of medical bills and debt.
So, how can you make your business more accessible in the future?
What does accessibility mean inside your business? It’s important to consider every factor, and focus on the voices of disabled people. For example, is there ample room to navigate, are there more accessible alternatives available where there are stairs, and is there enough space in the bathrooms? Does signage and reading material have Braille, and do screens and announcements have closed captions?
Further, is alternative text available for those with screen readers? Are your staff trained to appropriately interact with service animals and assist those with mobility devices? Do you offer flexible hours and remote work options? Is your office space comfortable for people with sensory issues? These are just a few of the questions you should ask yourself about your business in order to ensure each patron and employee is comfortable.
Disabled people should never be excluded from the customer experience, or from work opportunities because they have different needs. As such, it’s important to remember that accessibility doesn’t just end with making spaces wheelchair accessible (although this is an important consideration that is still often overlooked by able-bodied people).
The benefits of increased accessibility
The New York Times reported that it’s not just people with disabilities who appreciate the option to work from home. Remote work and events during COVID-19 have allowed for people to have “control over where and when work gets done, instead of demanding face time at the office and rewarding those who spend the longest hours there.”
Increased accessibility makes it possible for more people to appreciate your work and participate in events. Whether you’re a small business looking to make your website more accessible, an artisan trying to reach a broader audience, or a hiring manager looking to expand your team, maintaining and expanding on the technology created during the pandemic is a good way to broaden the possibilities of your business and programming.
Prioritize the voices of disabled people
Most importantly: listen to disabled people from all backgrounds and be receptive to their concerns. For example, when chronically ill workers tell you they need to work remotely or sit down, that should not be up for negotiation. When autistic workers tell you they’re experiencing sensory overload from their environment, don’t write it off as nothing because you don’t understand. Accessibility is not a one-size-fits-all issue, and making it out to be one only harms the disabled people working with you and those patronizing your business.
“[The pandemic has] been an opportunity to let people see: Here we are, we have the expertise, we have the knowledge, we have all the things to make your programs, your offices, better,” said Andraéa LaVant, a disability inclusion consultant in Tempe, Ariz, in a New York Times interview about increasing accessibility.
It isn’t enough to do the bare minimum and tell yourself that that is acceptable; take pride in making your business a space where all workers and customers feel supported and comfortable, and continuously listen to suggestions to improve. Disability justice is an ongoing issue, and abled people should do whatever they can to help ensure the creation of more accessible, supportive environments.
An earlier version of this article was published on Medium on April 13, 2021.
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