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Impacts of accessibility on business culture

September 24, 2020

You've likely heard of accessibility; the practice of making improvements to better support people with disabilities. If your organization deals in physical locations (or "brick and mortar"), accessibility features can include ramps, elevators, automatic doors, braille signage, and comfortable lighting. For digital products, this includes choice of font (style, size, colour, etc.), identifying links, describing images, labelling form fields, and many more considerations. If your business employs a team, you will likely also be familiar with training programs, centred around inclusivity and disability. Depending on the size or location of your company, you may also be aware of accessibility through legal compliance obligations, such as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act or the Accessible Canada Act.

“Accessibility in Canada is about creating communities, workplaces and services that enable everyone to participate fully in society without barriers.” Government of Canada

A common thread of these encounters with the practice of accessibility is that they require some (often unexpected) level of effort or expense in order to better serve others. Whether renovating a retail location, rebuilding a website, or retrofitting an office, an organization’s experience with accessibility tends to focus on its impacts on the bottom line.

While this is a factor to consider, it certainly isn't the only one. Nor should it be.

Organizations that look at accessibility purely as a requirement to be met will always miss the bigger picture. Taking a thoughtful approach can have a meaningful impact on your team, your customer experience, and your company's public image. Taking the minimum compliance view, however, typically results in yet another business burden or expense.

More than the bare minimum

For many employees, thinking about accessibility ends when they finish watching a mandatory training video, provided by human resources. This approach to training can be cumbersome to set up, expensive to modify, and tough to measure any genuine return from. All of this for a baseline legal requirement -- the bare minimum.

Imagine if accessibility training focused on encouraging your team to put themselves into the experience of customers and coworkers with disabilities. Rather than waiting for accommodation requests, an empathetic staff member will be proactive in considering the needs of others. It goes without saying that a client or customer who has been treated with compassion and consideration is much more likely to have a positive impression of your organization. More positive impressions means more repeat business, and more eager recommendations to friends, family, or colleagues.

Providing the minimum required training in accessibility clearly communicates exactly one thing: your business is satisfied with the bare minimum.

Employees who encounter a thoughtful approach from the early days of training, on the other hand, will understand that the company they're working for values extra effort. Being surrounded by a team that cares about delivering a better experience will encourage each member to give their best. People thrive in a working environment that makes them feel that they are contributing. The numbers are in (and have been for quite some time): working with purpose is rewarding for both employees and employers. It is tough to argue against helping people access the world around them as a source of meaning at work.

An empathetic working experience, starting with the early approach to accessibility, will lead to positive eNPS scores and higher quality referrals. Employees who care about their workplace and feel that they’re a part of valuing the client experience will, in turn, offer a better service to those customers.

Effects of public perception

Consumers are increasingly invested in the impact of their choices. This is especially true with the younger generations who continue to build more business and buying power with each passing year.

“Simply put, people — millennials most of all — want the companies they buy from to practice business sustainably and ethically.” Sarah Landrum via Forbes.

A company that takes extra care to consider persons with disabilities is demonstrating a human-focused, ethical culture. Choices such as this will put an organization well on their way to cultivating a (well-earned) positive public reputation. A business which practices its cultural values, rather than simply paying for marketing which advertises them, will cultivate a reputation of authenticity.

The younger generations who make up a growing customer base are also a large part of the workforce. That cohort of employees are disheartened by the cold, disingenuous corporate environment of organizations that do not live up to their values. This leads to apathy, lack of productivity, and high turnover.

Don’t get me wrong -- accessibility won’t cure all ills within a company. But a sincere, thoughtful approach to serving persons with disabilities communicates a top-down care for fair and equal treatment of people.

Building effective corporate culture

Building a purposeful culture from the ground up is difficult for any company. Shaping an existing culture into one that lives by the values of leadership can be even more tough. Culture is built on top of many choices, by various individuals, throughout the lifetime of an organization.

A company’s culture is meant to come from the highest level, by reflecting the values of its leaders. For many businesses, this takes the form of a team meeting, forwarded email, and fanciful script painted on the office walls. If the company’s values aren’t a part of the daily fabric, through the choices of leaders and actions of the team, they will be forgotten before the words painted on the walls even dry.

“These phrases fail to communicate what top brass believes their company to be. They are empty gestures that widen the gap between executives and employees, as they show a disconnect with what people do every day to keep a company afloat, and how leadership describes their work.” Cale Guthrie Weissman via FastCompany.

Many company values include at least one item focused on empathy, humanity, “elevating others”, or another equivalent phrasing. It is tough to think of a more fitting method to reinforce that intended culture than by working to make accessibility a key factor within your organization. Meeting bare minimum compliance, especially if it is the law, means you might as well tear down that “elevating others” poster in the lunchroom. Putting in the effort to offer a better, more considerate experience for customers, clients, or staff with disabilities is practicing empathy and equality to its core!

Written by

Stephen Belyea

Husband, father, habitual dork, front end developer + accessibility instigator, attempted writer, ex-pat Maritimer.

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