An estimated 1 billion people live with a disability. That's 15% of the global population, which, according to the United Nations (UN), makes them the world’s largest minority group.
But how do disabilities affect people in the workplace? And what can we all do to make our teams more inclusive? With 3rd December marking the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we spoke to three Googlers to understand what has made a difference for them – and what advice they would give to colleagues and companies alike to ensure a working environment that’s inclusive for all.
Recognise that each disability is nuanced and needs are individual
I took on the role of leading the Disability Alliance in our region to drive our mission of disability inclusion across EMEA. Accessibility is about so much more than just physical ability. It can be mental health, people who are carers, or neurodiversity, which in itself covers ADHD, migraines, epilepsy, brain trauma – anything that affects the brain. In fact, 70% of disabilities are invisible and you can never know if someone has one.
"To be truly inclusive we need to recognise that not everyone has the same needs."
I was born with a hearing impairment, but as my type of deafness doesn’t allow for a hearing aid, it’s a hidden disability. Equally, I never really considered it as a disability as I had no idea what ‘normal’ sounded like. Instead, it was my diagnosis of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) in my mid-twenties that really impacted me and affected my day-to-day activities. Again, ME is something you can’t necessarily ‘see’ and the symptoms can fluctuate, making it difficult to understand.
In addition, each disability is nuanced; two people might have the same thing and one feels they have a disability and the other doesn’t. To be truly inclusive we need to recognise that not everyone has the same needs.
To make a workplace truly accessible, it’s not just about helping one person. For example, my ME means that some days in the office I would struggle to walk or even open doors. I worked in a listed building with fire doors that were so heavy I couldn’t open them. I spoke to our facilities leads and they were able to adapt them – this made a world of difference for me but these smaller accommodations also benefit other people too. Lighter doors are easier for everyone!
The only way to change things is if we change the social narrative. Don't make assumptions – discuss with individuals what they want, what ambitions they have and make a plan to reach it. Work together with your manager with full transparency on health conditions. Statistically speaking, disabilities are normal and we need to change the narrative and society to speak about it more – and ensure equity actually exists.
Understand the difference between accessibility and usability
As a blind person I’m often affected by accessibility – or rather, the lack of it. While I have tools like speech synthesis to listen to content spoken from the computer, or braille display to translate text into a format I can read with my fingers, this equipment needs software to work and to be accessible. The software is always in development but, unfortunately, often behind.
Accessibility needs to be kept in mind in the early stages of any production process, whether you’re developing software or planning an office workspace. One mistake is when people try to tack on band-aid solutions when something is already designed. While this has started to change recently, at many companies accessibility is often an afterthought rather than a design requirement, and that can be a challenge.
If your main goal is to follow the rules that’s fine, but if you want to actually make it usable – that’s a different story. In the past I was working in a building in the US where there were Braille labels on meeting room doors. The doors were numbered in Braille – but for sighted people the rooms were actually named, not numbered – so they didn’t correlate in the calendar when booking a room. So while the intention for accessibility was there, in practice it wasn’t usable.
"Accessibility needs to be kept in mind in the early stages of any production process."
Making products accessible is something that everyone needs to do. It doesn't have to be super hard – it’s a question of knowing what you should do and how to do things and making it part of your regular way of working. While there are challenges, there are also solutions. And as long as everyone is willing to work toward solutions – the benefits of having people with different perspectives overrides any concerns. You will miss out on so much diversity if you don’t.
Treasure the strengths neurodiversity brings to teams
Many companies are proud to show the positive impact of having a diverse workforce. But in conversations around inclusivity, neurodiversity is often overlooked.
When I was in my forties, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neurological disorder impacting those parts of the brain that help us plan, prioritise, and execute tasks. It’s common for women to be diagnosed at a later age as this is when they start struggling. Everyone has to juggle a lot, whether it’s career, relationships, family, but with ADHD I liken it to juggling whilst riding a unicycle.
Learning how to deal with the challenges of ADHD helps you and those around you foster the abilities of a neurodivergent brain. I discovered the strengths that come with it; thanks to my differently wired brain I can hyperfocus, creatively see patterns and connections, and quickly come up with solutions.
"Actively talking about ADHD has also empowered other colleagues with neurodiverse conditions to speak up."
At first I was concerned about how colleagues would react if I told them about my neurodivergence. But I realised that having open conversations about it helped them understand it and recognise my attributes. Some of them have even become my allies by helping me plan, prioritise or summarise my work. In turn, they pick my brain for outside the box ideas and this is how we can all thrive as a team.
Actively talking about ADHD has also empowered other colleagues with neurodiverse conditions to speak up. I've had several people confide in me about their hidden struggles with neurodivergence, as they fear judgement in the neurotypical world. My ultimate dream is for people to feel empowered to write on their CVs that their brain is wired differently. That’s what the movement of neurodiversity is about: uncovering the strengths of neurodivergent individuals and utilising their talents to increase innovation and productivity in the workplace – and society – as a whole.