What is a Chief Accessibility Officer?

Published March 18, 2022

As organizations continue to evaluate how to adopt and implement inclusion in the workplace, leaders have started to rethink what role accessibility plays in a company’s bottom line. Many have made more intentional steps towards a genuinely accessible work environment by adding a new executive rank to their teams − Chief Accessibility Officer (CAO).

The objective of a CAO, also known as Head of Accessibility, is to make accessibility a core value within their company. This goal is met in several ways that require a total reexamination of a company from the inside out. While such a task may seem daunting for companies to take on, the benefits of hiring a CAO far outweigh the investment.

The broad scope of a Chief Accessibility Officer

The CAO is a comprehensive role in that every aspect of an organization can and should be influenced. Diversity Plus Magazine wonderfully breaks down the three primary CAO responsibilities as:

Making accessibility a core value, empowering every employee in the organization to meet career and personal goals, and ensuring accessibility is considered in everything the business does.

There are dozens of ways the Head of Accessibility goes about meeting these responsibilities. In a WSJ interview with the Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft, Jenny Lay-Flurrie explained that one of the best ways a CAO understands how a company must change is to listen. Listening to all stakeholders is the driving force to making a workspace truly accessible, even for the consumers of the product or services a company offers.

While understanding the implications and requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is necessary, a CAO’s job is to go above and beyond. CAOs strive for optimal accessibility in ways that law may not require. Ms. Lay-Flurrie said this when asked to elaborate on how a CAO must think about accessible products:

The science of accessibility and inclusive design is if you build it in by design and infuse the insights of people with disabilities, you’re quite simply going to get better stuff.

While Lay-Flurrie was primarily referring to technological designs, her quote applies quite well to all aspects of a company. Whether working with a product design, diversity initiative, or hiring process, infusing the insights of people with disabilities will always lead to more inclusive and accessible results. Chief Accessibility Officers utilize the wisdom from those with disabilities to implement change within a company.

Differences between diversity executives

Many companies have hired diversity executives whose roles may seem quite similar to that of a CAO. However, diversity experts and executives tend to have entirely different focuses. Chief Diversity Officers are more centered around compliance with government accessibility laws and removing unconscious biases within hiring processes.

For example, one of the roles of a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) may be to ensure an organization recruits and hires from a pool of diverse and underrepresented candidates. A CDO may even facilitate creating data-based diversity and inclusion strategies. However, a CDO is not required to hone in on how accessibility influences the hiring process or diversity and inclusion policies.

Chief Accessibility Officers also expand their services beyond diversity and inclusion strategies for employees into all aspects of an organization, including designing products and services accessible to both employees and consumers.

Accessibility as a guiding principle

Hiring a Chief Accessibility Officer means an organization has deliberately placed accessibility at the forefront of the company culture and bottom line. It says to employees and consumers of an organization that accessibility will be a guiding principle in all aspects of the company, instead of an afterthought or overlooked notion.

When a company invests in a Chief Accessibility Officer, the ripple effects and often neglected measures necessary for an accessible workplace become distinct and immediate choices.

Ms. Lay-Flurrie of Microsoft referred to small actions that significantly influence a company’s accessibility standards:

Some of the simplest things you can do are making sure you have different-colored furniture to your carpet or flooring for people who are blind or low vision...Accessible by design means embedding accessibility and people with disabilities' insights into the design process. You cannot just put a ramp on a building a week before you launch it and cut the red ribbon.

No matter how big or small the change, accessibility needs to be considered at the beginning of every new diversity strategy, product design, employee initiative, and executive meeting. The best way to ensure a company makes accessibility a guiding principle is to welcome a CAO to help lead the way into a more accessible future.

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