We’re all in this together. Many of us understand this common phrase as a call for unity and solidarity amid challenging times. However, this galvanizing expression also represents the underlying belief many thriving organizations share. Companies and organizations incorporate and employ all types of individuals, including people with and without disabilities.
Accessibility initiatives work to unify, remove barriers, and set the organization's tone for inclusion. These initiatives may be office DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) programs, web accessibility ventures, or programmatic access transition plans. No matter the focus, there’s one particular ingredient that can make or break these accessibility efforts; community engagement.
Understanding community engagement
Community engagement models represent different ideals depending on the organization, but its core principles remain the same. Flourishing community engagement ambitions require at least three distinct principles to thrive:
- Well-informed community members via effective communication and transparency
- Clearly valued employees as shown through empowering organizational practices, and
- A strong foundational trust of the leaders within the organization.
Any organization is at a deficit without any of these underlying principles. However, achieving all three is not as daunting as it may seem. Clearly stating an organization’s core values is half of the battle. An organization or company interested in becoming more accessible must both state that goal clearly to its employees, and also begin to show that goal through its actions.
For example, an organization may present a desire for future accessibility initiatives, but who they choose to lead those initiatives may serve as an even stronger message − selecting a respected leader with a history of transparency is an action that the community can see and understand. Community engagement requires the intentional and continuous inclusion of all individuals, no matter their disability. Ultimately, the ideas and contributions of those with disabilities should be at the forefront of any discussion.
Community engagement means active inclusion
Inadequate inclusion can greatly hinder the success of any accessibility initiative. But what does inclusion actually mean?
Those included in the community must feel valued and heard. Furthermore, a very important trope to avoid is the concept of tokenism or the inclusion of a community member or employee for the sake of appearance rather than the deeper need of that person’s unique views and ideas. Time spent listening and valuing employees with disabilities is an investment in a more accessible future.
Not listening can look like major missteps, similar to Twitter’s Voice Tweets in 2020, a feature Slate reported ignored the deaf and hard of hearing communities. The tech company has since apologized and added a transcriptions option, but the point is that such a mistake can be avoided. Accessibility initiatives should work as responses to actual problems people with disabilities face, but leaders cannot know about these problems if the right voices aren’t elevated and appreciated.
What successful accessibility initiatives can look like
Where Twitter missed the mark in 2020, Zoom filled a long-overlooked void. CEO of National Association of the Deaf (NAD), Howard A. Rosenblum highlighted Zoom as the leading platform for video chat services due to its inclusion of highly accessible features.
Other major tech companies have helped lead the way as well. Apple implemented a feature in FaceTime that detects when a participant uses sign language. Google introduced a Braille keyboard and assistant for those with speech impediments. Microsoft created a “playbook” of how its been managing accessibility and Amazon launched call captioning in its Echo devices.
What all these companies have in common is strong community engagement, noting some of the most diverse employees mosaics and most aggressive DEI programs in the world. When accessibility initiatives are a community effort, their success becomes not just a goal but a commitment within the organization.
The bottom line
True community engagement values all individuals − regardless of whether they are able-bodied or have a disability. When organizations do not engage their communities for solutions that best serve their needs, be it the employee population or customer base, they lose invaluable trust that can take years to build and ultimately miss out on the type of innovation that can only be achieved through diversity and collaboration.