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Why disability inclusion is everyone’s business

Now more than ever, businesses are seeking ways to boost innovation and productivity in a sustainable way. But many business leaders overlook a huge opportunity when it comes to realizing this ambition: the potential of more than one billion people worldwide who have some form of disability.

On the occasion of Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2020, we’re highlighting how inclusive technologies can help open up the world of work to a wider range of talent and help employers keep the door open for all.

One in every five people in Europe has a disability. That’s equivalent to 100 million people across the continent. It’s highly likely that you know someone with a disability, whether visible or invisible, cognitive or physical. Perhaps you even have a disability yourself. Yet despite this, people with disabilities are often conspicuously absent from a place many of us spend a considerable amount of time – the world of work.

The statistics are startling. Barely half of all people with disabilities in the EU are employed, compared with an employment rate of almost 75 percent for people without disabilities. It’s perhaps not surprising then to learn that more than a quarter of people with disabilities living in the EU are at risk of poverty.

But it’s not just individuals who lose out when workplaces are not sufficiently inclusive. Potential employers are missing out on a wide array of talent, creativity and innovative ways of thinking. Research has found that this has a direct impact of businesses’ bottom lines as well as the wider economy: it’s been estimated that disability exclusion costs OECD countries up to 7 percent of their GDP.

Opening the door to accessibility

To tackle this challenge, businesses need to consider not only the potential talent they could be hiring if they had more inclusive policies, but also current employees with disabilities that may not be immediately apparent. This is particularly important given the current situation.

Working remotely or from home has thrown up new challenges for people with disabilities; whether for a deaf person who usually relies on lip-reading to communicate with colleagues, or for an individual with a mental health condition who is struggling without their usual routine or due to lack of social contact.

Many people with disabilities can feel uncomfortable asking for reasonable accommodations that they are entitled to, and few employers know which tools are already available that they could benefit from. That’s why the journey to increasing disability inclusion at work starts with increasing confidence, for employer and employee alike. Most reasonable accommodations are in fact free. They do however require you to start a conversation.

Many mainstream technologies now have built-in accessibility features, which can assuage concerns about needing to procure specialist equipment. For instance, someone with mobility issues may not need a specialized keyboard if they are comfortable using the Dictate speech-to-text functionality in Microsoft 365 applications, while using keyboard shortcuts or a screen reader with Microsoft Office means that a person who is blind or has low vision can read their emails as quickly as anyone with full vision.

These accessibility features, along with many others, all come as standard in many Microsoft applications. When multinational IT company ATOS rolled out Windows 10 and Office 365 for their 110,000 employees worldwide, the company found they were able to meet employees’ expectations on accessibility thanks to tools such as color blind filters, immersive reader and captioning in PowerPoint.

But just because the tools exist doesn’t mean everyone knows about them. That’s why I work with organizations of all shapes and sizes to raise awareness of the in-built accessibility tools they already have available to them, so that they can communicate proactively with all employees, and feel confident in recruiting a greater share of talent with disabilities.

Inclusivity unlocks innovation and attracts talent

A team that works around somebody with a disability is a better team and does better work. The International Labour Organization notes that disability inclusion at work can drive increased innovation, since “employees with diverse experiences have different approaches to problem solving”. If you or someone you know has a disability, this probably comes as no surprise; many people with disabilities are natural problem-solvers, having to spend much of their time troubleshooting the wider world to make it work for them.

As a prospective employer, it’s important to shift your mindset to thinking about what people with disabilities can do, rather than what they can’t.

Inclusive hiring policies have a direct impact on innovation and can even open up new opportunities for growth. When you have diverse teams that include people with disabilities, you find out where and why your product or service does not work for them – and you begin to innovate. This inevitably benefits end users and makes your products and services more appealing to customers with disabilities, whose spending power is an estimated £249 billion in the UK alone. By embedding accessibility within your own company culture, you can ensure that you are innovating with inclusivity in mind also.

Fostering a culture of inclusivity is good news for everyone. All of us will face some type of temporary or situational disability at some point in our lives. Whether you’re struggling to follow a conversation in your second or third language, or are unable to type due to a broken wrist, built-in accessibility solutions can support all employees at different moments in time – as customers such as the UK Department of Education and Sodexo have both discovered. And there’s a benefit when it comes to talent recruitment and retention also: a 2017 survey by PWC suggested that more than half of all jobseekers research a company’s diversity and inclusion policies when considering whether to accept a job offer.

Creating a culture of inclusivity can’t be an afterthought; it has to be baked in. And that’s true for technology too.

That’s why Microsoft works to ensure that accessibility is woven into the fabric of what we design and build, ensuring that our products and services provide inclusive experiences for all. Our approach is based on designing with and for people with disabilities – and it’s this approach, for instance, that’s helped us on the journey to making Microsoft Teams more inclusive for people who are blind.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has left many us feeling isolated and excluded, unable to work, live and play the way we want to. But let’s not forget that people with disabilities face such challenges year-round. As we mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day slightly differently this year, we call on employers everywhere to take this opportunity to build more diverse teams, learn about accessibility tools and products that support all employees, and make accessibility a priority from 9 to 5 – and beyond.