DE&I

How HR can help disabled employees get the tools and accommodations they need

An employer could have a library of accessible technologies, but if employees don’t know how to request them, the technology is useless.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photo: Alexsl/Getty Images

5 min read

The Department of Labor first announced a disability employment initiative in 1945. Nearly 80 years later, National Disability Employment Awareness Month isn’t just about employing physically disabled people, but also spreading awareness that all disabled workers, whether or not their disabilities are visible, deserve the tools they need to thrive in the workplace.

Technological barriers can make it harder for disabled people to get and keep jobs, according to the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion. But by increasing the availability of technology, communication, and cross-departmental collaboration, accessibility experts said, HR can help disabled workers succeed.

Accommodations are tools. Imagine running a marathon—but with only one shoe. Maybe you’d make it to the finish line, but it would likely take a lot longer. Now think about the tools employees may need to do their jobs well: an extra monitor or number-crunching software, among other things. Assistive technology accommodations shouldn’t be seen in a different light, explained Lori Golden, abilities strategy leader at Ernst & Young.

Assistive technologies can range from live captions or sound amplification systems for people who are hard of hearing, to screen-reader software for those with vision loss, portable word processors for neurodivergent employees, or a modified mouse for someone with a limb difference. These are just a few drops in the bucket of the wide-ranging assistive technologies available.

Brittany King, a diversity expert and career consultant, told HR Brew that people leaders aren’t always adequately educated about assistive technology or disability and, as such, may prioritize the needs of those of other identities. She said neglecting the needs of disabled employees “sends the message that certain diverse groups or certain minority groups are more important than others.”

Clarity and process. A library would just be a pile of books if not for librarians and the Dewey Decimal System. Accommodation policies are similar. An employer could have a library of accessible technologies, but if employees don’t know how to request them, the technology is useless.

Consider this example from Tori Clark, a digital accessibility strategist and executive director at Digital A11ies, an organization that advocates for accessible websites. She told HR Brew via LinkedIn that she requested speech-to-text software Dragon Speak to do her job at two different employers. At one, it took a full year to get the accommodation; at the other, her manager had to “fight” to get her the tool.

Golden said HR can avoid these problems by establishing a clear, consistent, and easy process for employees to request accommodations. “You need a consistent, documented process. That process needs to be communicated to everybody. And it needs to be communicated in a way that's straightforward and understandable.”

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Ernst & Young, for example, has an internal disability website that includes a way to request reasonable accommodations, as well as information on assistive technologies and best practices for accessible meetings.

“It outlines the process step by step in everyday language,” she said, and “there is an accommodations mailbox where you send in an accommodations request” that goes to three people who handle all the requests.

The firm also has a dedicated assistive technology expert who works closely with the accommodations team to ensure employees’ requests are fulfilled and provide any necessary ongoing tech support. This expert also stays up to date on the latest assistive technology so he can advise the company on what tools to invest in. Golden said having “dedicated personnel or a piece of someone’s time so that this [accessibility] is a priority” is important to an accommodations plan.

Team effort. HR leaders can’t and shouldn’t be expected to go through the accommodations process alone, King said. She explained that HR leaders can only provide adequate accommodations when they’re given the support, buy-in, and funds from senior leadership.

Kevin Fritz, employment counsel at workforce software company Gusto, expressed a similar sentiment, explaining that an assistive technology team should include the accommodations specialist from HR, as well as someone from legal, an assistive technology expert in IT, and a cybersecurity specialist.

Once an accommodation is made, it’s easier for the team to provide it to people who need it down the line. “Make a repository,” suggested Fritz. “Make a list of things that the company has already sanctioned as appropriate…[and] we can use it as a potential engaging accommodation for the future.”

An equitable workplace. Employees aren’t just doing their jobs, Golden said. They’re building careers, and that always takes investment.

“It only makes sense to put the time and effort and the tools in place so that that person can be as successful as their energies and talents allow,” she said. “Technology is part of the picture.”—KP

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @Kris10Parisi on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Kristen for her number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.