The woman leading Amazon’s employee accessibility advancement

Megan Smith says an inaccessible workplace should be approached the same way as a defective product.
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Megan Smith

4 min read

Megan Smith knows a thing or two about accessibility. She has spent more than a decade focused on accessibility for all and grew up with a disability herself. She recently spoke to HR Brew about her journey to Amazon’s people accessibility team, and how HR leaders can keep accessibility top-of-mind.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got interested in accessibility, from a workplace standpoint?

My career has woven in and out of accessibility from the beginning. I was working full-time at a hospital and was a guide-dog user. I was putting myself in this position of giving my thoughts as to how we could make the hospital environment and workplace for me more accessible. I started to realize I have a point of view about this, but found myself really relying on my own experiences. Around that time, I started to pursue a graduate degree in disability service.

I got that degree and was working for a health insurance company in the diversity office, and brought forward this plan to them that said, we have gaps in our customer experience for people with disabilities. We could be doing more as a health insurance company. I didn’t quite know what I was talking about, but dug deeper into how to make our workplace more inclusive of people with disabilities, and walked into a role that I created.

How would you explain what the “people accessibility” team is?

We talk about accessibility at Amazon as the intentional practice of ensuring that an experience works for people with disabilities. It’s something you’re constantly doing. It’s often technology, the physical environment, a process, or more broadly, the culture, and all of those things have to come together to enable an equitable and inclusive experience.

What is the job the employee is trying to do? Whether that’s filling out a job application or [having an] interview at Amazon, whether that’s a big product in our operations environment. We think about how to make that holistic experience work for the broadest range of people, people with disabilities.

How long has Amazon had the philosophy that it’s not so much about the disability, but that the world is inaccessible?

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I love the World Health Organization definition of disability, and I use [it] a lot as we do our work, which is disability is a complex interaction between a person in their environment.

And at Amazon, we’re owners. That’s one of our leadership principles. And we insist on the highest standard, so we don’t send a defect down the line… If something isn’t accessible, we’re passing a defect on to our candidate or to our employee versus stopping it where it could start and never introducing that barrier or defects in the first place.

In your nearly five-year tenure, what types of changes have you introduced for employees that you’re really proud of?

We have a team of folks who are experts at neurodiversity. So, we have a program…designed for people who are neurodiverse, where they can engage with a work wellness coach and they get a series of sessions [that are] specific to whatever executive function challenges they may have. Whether that’s prioritization or staying on task.

Disability isn’t just one-dimensional, so I’ve personally seen this program in action with people on my team who weren’t neurodiverse but had a different disability. Because of managing that disability, they needed different strategies to be able to be successful at Amazon.

For companies with fewer resources, how should they be thinking about accessibility and building an accessible workplace?

Insist on the highest standards and not sending a defect down the line. So, if you’re an HR professional and you are looking at your job application or assessment or other interview tools that you’re buying off the shelf from other vendors, are you asking them about accessibility? And are you putting it in your contract to require them to be accessible?

If you are an HR professional and you don’t know where to start, can you begin to have conversations with the people who make technology decisions, whether you’re building or buying, and help them understand what accessibility means? Because that’s setting the right foundation and making it so that people are not having to navigate that friction and not having to get accommodations where a barrier shouldn’t exist.

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.