This blog post was contributed by Jonathon Avila, Chief Accessibility Officer at Level Access.
Over the past few years, organizations have rallied around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. As of July 2022, every one of the Fortune 100 companies had publicly stated a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), according to research by HR Dive. Additionally, consultancy Semler Brossy reported that 28% of S&P 500 companies included DEI in their 2021 executive incentive plans.
Meanwhile, other entities—primarily in the public sector—are championing an expanded version of the acronym: DEIA, or diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Organizations ranging from the U.S. Department of Energy to the Cincinnati Arts Association have public DEIA statements on their websites. And in 2021, President Biden issued an executive order aimed at promoting DEIA within the U.S. federal workforce.
But what do these acronyms mean? And how, if at all, are they different? In this post, we’ll define DEI and make the case for why accessibility—and digital accessibility, in particular—is integral, not additional, to any effective DEI program. We’ll also explain why DEIA needs to be a top priority for any organization aiming to foster a fairer and more just culture and succeed in today’s market.
What is DEI?
By championing DEI, organizations aim to create workplaces and communities where all individuals can fully participate and thrive. They recognize and address structural and systemic barriers to equity and inclusion, while valuing and celebrating the differences that make us all unique. Corporate DEI initiatives typically focus on internal practices such as:
- Supporting affinity-based employee resource groups and proactively seeking out feedback from these groups to foster a more inclusive company culture.
- Establishing unbiased recruitment, hiring, and promotion processes, so that their employees and executive leadership reflect the diversity of their customers and potential customers.
- Educating employees about the importance of fairness and bringing awareness to discriminatory behavior.
- Prioritizing vendor diversity and choosing vendors that embrace DEI when procuring new products and services.
In addition to internal DEI efforts, many organizations have made DEI part of their brand identities, letting these values guide everything from marketing strategy to product design and development. External DEI efforts drive community engagement, educate audiences, and demonstrate social responsibility.
Importantly, discrete DEI initiatives—whether internal or external—are aimed at achieving a much larger goal. DEI isn’t just about changing a company’s culture, supporting equal employment opportunities, or ensuring diverse representation in marketing materials. It’s about building robust, resilient, and sustainable, global, and competitive organizations powered by diverse thinking and experiences.
“DEI” should already imply an “A”
By expanding DEI to include accessibility, the acronym DEIA explicitly calls out the need to empower people with disabilities as part of the broader movement toward socially just organizations and workplaces. But in reality, accessibility is already integral to—not separate from—the work that goes into creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. Put simply, there’s no “D,” “E,” or “I” without an “A.”
One key intention of corporate DEI initiatives is to empower communities that are under-represented in the workforce. The disability community falls squarely into this category: many people with disabilities are underemployed. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 21% of people with disabilities in the U.S. were employed in 2022—a figure well below the 65.4% employment rate for people without disabilities. This disparity was even greater for individuals with certain types of disabilities. Yet despite these statistics, many people don’t actively think about disability as part of diversity, nor do they consider the impact of accessibility on equity and inclusion in DEI. The addition of an “A” brings the often-missing awareness of disability in DEI conversations back into focus.
How digital accessibility fits into DEIA
The widespread underemployment of people with disabilities can be partly attributed to the fact that many organizations rely on inaccessible technology. And digital technology, specifically, is shaping more and more of what we do in daily life. (In fact, just about everything we do at Level Access happens online).
To uphold the values of DEIA, organizations need to ensure that their digital experiences are accessible to all people. But what does that mean in practice? Below, we’ll take a deeper dive into the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and explain how digital accessibility, as part of broader accessibility efforts, factors into an organization’s commitment to each.
Organizations that commit to diversity, the “D” in DEIA, embrace differences. Internally, they hire, upskill, and promote employees with different racial, gender, and ethnic identities, different class backgrounds, different abilities, and who are neurodiverse. And externally, they account for users’ varied needs and priorities in their products and messaging. Responsibility for upholding this commitment is shared throughout the organization. Senior leaders consider questions about diversity and representation in executive decision-making, and continuously monitor and refine their efforts.
To maintain a diverse workforce, organizations need to hire and retain employees with disabilities. Now that much—if not all—of the recruitment and hiring process takes place online for many organizations, teams must confirm that the platforms they use to source and evaluate talent are free of accessibility barriers. And in today’s digital-first workplaces, equipping employees with accessible tools and resources is critical to retaining diverse talent.
Meanwhile, product and marketing teams that prioritize DEIA know that digital accessibility is critical for catering to diverse audiences. By designing and developing digital experiences for a range of use cases—including users of assistive technology like screen readers—they make sure everyone can engage with these experiences in the way that suits them.
Equity is about fairness. An equitable organization offers its employees equal opportunities to succeed, and the support they need to do so. These organizations also ensure that all current and potential customers can benefit fairly from the products and services they provide.
While non-discriminatory compensation, promotion, and mentorship practices are staples of equitable workplaces, equity also means all employees have the same level of access to the resources necessary to perform their day-to-day responsibilities. When organizations expect employees to use inaccessible technology, people with disabilities confront unfair barriers to performance. In fact, even if employees with disabilities can ultimately complete a task using an inaccessible system, they may need to work longer and harder than their peers to achieve the same results. And they may not receive recognition or compensation for this additional work.
These inequitable circumstances, which may stem from inaccessible technology created in-house or outside the organization, don’t just limit individuals’ career growth. By absorbing employees’ time with tedious workarounds and failing to tap into teams’ true potential, organizations ultimately interfere with their overall productivity and growth. Similarly, failing to prioritize the accessibility of consumer-facing digital properties doesn’t just result in inequitable experiences for people with disabilities—diminishing their quality of life—but also limits the marketability of these offerings.
Inclusive organizations make their employees and audiences alike feel valued for their diverse backgrounds, identities, abilities, and skills. More than the other tenets of DEIA, inclusion speaks to an organization’s culture: how do people communicate with and treat one another?
Even in the office, much workplace communication—both internal and external—now takes place through digital platforms. And If email, messaging, and video conferencing systems aren’t accessible, people with disabilities are excluded from conversations. But including the voices of all employees, customers, and prospects means more than buying and building accessible products. Team members need to make sure that all information that is communicated—whether in the form of a slide deck, or a Slack message—can be received by its intended recipients, regardless of whether they have a disability.
Many of the largest providers of workplace communications technology, such as Microsoft and Adobe, offer built-in tools for checking content accessibility. However, individuals need to be accountable for using these tools and addressing flagged issues. Establishing this accountability requires building a culture of awareness and allyship.
Beyond communication, teams can embed inclusion in their product development process by taking steps like including people with disabilities in user experience (UX) research, which ensures organizations don’t unintentionally exclude users from new digital experiences. And by adopting accessibility standards and inclusive marketing best practices (for example, providing closed captioning for webinars), teams invite all audience members to engage with and participate in an organization’s story.
DEIA is a long-term commitment
Accessibility can’t be neatly separated from the first three letters in DEIA. It’s essential to make them a reality. And in our increasingly digital world, organizations need to prioritize the accessibility of digital experiences in order to achieve their goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion. But embracing accessibility—both on and offline—as part of DEIA is not a one-time project. It’s an ongoing process.
Organizations may score excellent marks on indexes that measure DEI but fail to actually be accessible to people with disabilities. Too often, organizations outwardly champion accessibility by releasing a statement, or even establishing a policy, but don’t take the practical action required to follow through on this promise. And among those that do act, efforts can be short-lived. For example, a company leader might make sweeping organizational changes in support of accessibility, only for this work to unravel following their departure. Or an organization might invest heavily in accessibility in response to an ADA lawsuit but abandon these efforts once they’ve met their settlement obligations.
To make meaningful, lasting progress towards accessibility, and further their DEI efforts, organizations need to embed it in their day-to-day processes. Only then can they build a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce, and a better world.
Have you incorporated accessibility into your DEI policy? Engage with our team to get started making your digital experiences accessible to all.
About the author
Jonathan Avila (CPWA) is the Chief Accessibility Officer at Level Access. He has invested two decades in the digital accessibility field guiding organizations to create inclusive experiences that are usable to a wide range of people with disabilities. Through this work, he has supported accessibility across many different environments including web, mobile, documentation, extended reality, kiosk, and gaming, to empower people with disabilities to live their best lives. Jonathan is a member of the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group of the World Wide Web Consortium and the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. At Level Access, he focuses his time on testing methodology, thought leadership, and internal accessibility program policy to grow and sustain the company’s implementation of an inclusive workplace.
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