Business has been aware of the benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace for years, but being aware of something isn’t the same as being good at it. Very few businesses have really nailed it; most of them know and admit it. Others proclaim ‘Mission Accomplished’ because they successfully ushered a few ‘diverse’ recruits through their door; they’ve met compliance but continue to score low on actual inclusion.  Diversity and inclusion, particularly where people with disabilities are concerned, seems a bit daunting or complex to many employers.  Is there a ‘leap’ to be taken, or just some baby steps? How complicated is this going to be and how much is it going to cost? How bad will we look if we don’t get it right?

People with disabilities don’t experience exclusion because they’re ‘defective people.’  The limitations are about barriers built into systems, spaces and mindsets that were designed by and for ‘able’ people. The issue is inaccessibility and poorly considered design in spaces and systems; this is what excludes people. If we frame the limited workplace inclusion of people with disabilities as issues of design, accessibility and exclusion, the problem actually becomes easier to address. More importantly, addressing these issues actually creates a better workplace for all employees.

There is a euphoric moment when insight hits and a problem suddenly becomes, not necessarily simple, but certainly solvable. That moment may have arrived in the form of a few complimentary ingredients, not the least of which is a growing desire within the market to leverage the benefits of workplace diversity and inclusion. The best businesses know how to adapt, how to pivot, how to leverage transferable skills and existing capacity. The tools and knowledge are all there – but mobilization is key. How do we put the pieces together and what are the resources we can access for support?

Three Essential Ingredients to Increasing Employment Accessibility and Inclusion:

Human Centered Design is a creative approach to problem solving that seeks and then applies the knowledge of the people you’re designing for. This is about designing systems for the ‘end users’ rather than the system administrators. It’s a shift in mindset that can reduce systemic barriers and increase inclusion and engagement.

Growth Mindset is the belief that talents can be developed, that learning is constant, that improvement (under this principle) is continuous. Some would consider this to be the type of ‘dynamic’ talent – and problem solving – that will be required as the future of work unfolds. People who are able to source information and apply it adaptively – for instance, to increase systemic and physical workplace accessibility – are in increasing demand. With persons with disabilities as the world’s fastest growing minority group, why wouldn’t they be?

Growth Mindsets are in stark contrast to Fixed Mindsets – which reflect a belief that a person’s talents, intelligence, qualifications, and therefore value, are ‘fixed’ concepts. Think of the last job posting your company drafted and all of the qualities and credentials that applicants were expected to arrive to the interview with and you’ve got a good picture of Fixed Mindsets. Although some elements of fixed mindsets are legitimate, and exist in all workers, they don’t give companies everything they need.

Universal Design, originally an architectural accessibility term, seeks to make products, environments and systems usable by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation. Universal Design refers to building things in ways that work for everyone and customizing processes where required. Design for All Europe defines Universal Design as “….design for human diversity, social inclusion, and equality.” A relevant example of systemic application of universal design is the development of a ‘Workplace Accommodation Policy’ that addresses accessibility of job postings, interviews and on-boarding processes. The simple act of providing a description of the location, accessibility and style of the interview process to candidates being contacted for interviews – and asking if they require any type of accommodation for the interview – is something recruiters can and should do for all candidates. This is systemic Universal Design in action.  Other examples of systemic Universal Design applications might include implementation of the National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. Implementation of this standard not only makes the workplace more systemically accessible for people with disabilities, it increases workplace well-being and engagement for all employees.

An extremely important consideration with all three of these conceptual ‘ingredients’ is that none of them demand that one be a ‘professional’ to utilize and implement their concepts. They merely require that people become familiar with, and utilize, the required ‘mindsets.’

What if we applied all three concepts simultaneously to address Workplace Accessibility in terms of processes, systems and work cultures? Using Human Centered Design principles and Growth Mindsets to explore and facilitate Universal Design and systemic accessibility for any and all employees would almost certainly foster innovation and build business capacity. Building systemically accessible and inclusive workplaces generates more benefits than simply including people with disabilities. The end result will be adaptive, resilient businesses that attract and retain talent better than their competitors. We achieve the goals we set out to achieve through this process but we also achieve things we hadn’t even imagined at the beginning. This is part of what makes innovation so exciting.

What might employment accessibility and inclusion innovation look like for an employer? Can existing skills and capacities within HR be leveraged for Policy and Process development to create a more inclusive workplace? Yes. Is there an abundance of online resources and publicly funded service providers than can be accessed in order to apply Human Centered Design / Universal Design? Can business really start leveraging their existing skills along with available knowledge around design thinking to create an accessible workplace? Yes – they can.

Charles Darwin said

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

Being agile and adaptive leads to resilience. The companies that learn how to leverage human capital through inclusive workplace cultures and genuine engagement will thrive in the future of work.