We live in a world that is growing older and, as a result, becoming more disabled. The World Health Organization’s most recent study indicates that, in countries with a life expectancy of age 70 or older, on average, each of us will live at least 8 years of our life with a disability. That’s 11.5% of our lifespan. As the bulk of the world’s population ages, this will grow and, quite literally, change how we interact with each other.
In the words of WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, “In the years ahead, disability will be an even greater concern because its prevalence is on the rise. This is due to ageing populations and the higher risk of disability in older people as well as the global increase in chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health disorders.”
For those of us who want to continue to do business and attract capable employees in a future where disabilities become more common, being aware of the disabilities our customers, employees and coworkers live with, will directly impact our ability to stay competitive and viable. How we respond to the challenges and changes will interpret what kind of a culture we are building within our organizations, as well as the type of message we are sending to the public.
But how do we become more aware, and recognize the needs of, those around us who live with disabilities? As the leader of an organizations staffed largely by professionals who live with disabilities, it’s an interesting question. Why? Because as easy as it would be to believe that disability awareness is an “automatic” consideration for everyone working at WeCo, it simply isn’t. Even people who live with disabilities have to work at understanding the needs of people who live with disabilities that are different from our own.
So here’s how we approach disability awareness in our company:
- Include disability awareness as part of your diversity planning: Most companies think of diversity as tied exclusively to ethnicity, sexual orientation and spiritual beliefs. At WeCo, we realize that diversity also includes disabilities.
- TRADE SECRET SPOILER ALERT / Start to consider the perspective of staff and/or customers living with disabilities as a skill set, and put it to good use. The fabric of our company was built upon the view that disabilities are a skill set. It’s natural for us to ask each other things like, “Did a staffer with a cognitive disability look over this program description? Can they understand what we’re getting at?” It works. It works extremely well, in fact. Not only to keep us all aware of each other’s disabilities, but to help shape programs, products and approaches that actually work.
- Integrate disability awareness into your planning and implementation process: We include steps in our planning and internal process roll out, to include reviewing disabilities present, or future, staff and testers on our teams may live with. For example, this might be how a new office tool might work for them. There are times when we’ve had to use tools that aren’t accessible to everyone, because there is no other alternative. Our planning process allows us ample time and energy to come up with suitable work-arounds so that everyone can be engaged and benefit. It also gives us a clear picture of features we need to shop for in a fully accessible tool in the future.
- Avoid applying a “blanket approach” to disability awareness: We see this happen often in our industry. Companies hire a handful of individuals with sight-related disabilities and use their feedback to represent people who live with all types of disabilities.
As well as our Accessibility Team understands how our testers living with disabilities interact with the websites and software they test, they also understand how unique disabilities are for each individual. One type of disability can manifest itself very differently across a group of people. People can also respond to a similar disability in very different ways, depending upon preference and lifestyle.
- Make discussion about disability easier: At WeCo, we learned very early on that even in an environment where disabilities are viewed as a skill set, talking about them isn’t easy for everyone. That’s why we offer our staff a myriad of ways to communicate their needs and desires regarding their work environment, accommodation and interactions, in regard to their disabilities. (You can apply this approach to helping your staff talk about their fears or any discomfort they feel about interacting with customers and coworkers who may live with disabilities.)
Here are a few tools we use:
- Growth and Development Meeting Segments: At each monthly staff meeting, we devote 20-30 minutes on a particular topic to build company culture. These topics often touch upon, and directly address, how we interact with each other. Inevitably, our individual disabilities, and our preferences for treatment, verbal references, etc. gets covered.
- Surveys and Written Exercises: Writing can help some of us get a handle on what we think and feel. We have found that surveys and writing exercises give staff a way to find their voice. Surveys remain anonymous and exercises do not need to be shared with the group, but can be brought to a team lead or director to discuss if the person wishes.
- Open Door Policy with encouragement: Every company I have ever worked for had an “open door” policy with management. Few ever did anything to bring it to life, beyond printing it in the handbook. At WeCo, team leads and directors are actively taught to offer discussion time with their staff, in small groups and individually. Realizing that people may wish to talk with us, but may not know how to start the conversation, is a vital part of having an open door.