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Accessibility tips for business owners 11 min read

7 insights on accessibility in business from CWB’s Visible and Invisible Disability Advocates group

VIDA co-chair Elaine Martin on giving people what they need to succeed.

A simple pair of glasses.

It’s what Elaine Martin uses to explain a concept that can sometimes be complex to understand – equity.

“In a presentation on behalf of VIDA I gave this glasses example,” says Martin, who co-chairs Visible and Invisible Disability Advocates – or VIDA, for short – one of CWB’s eight Employee Represented Groups (ERG).

“My sister has four kids and one of them has glasses. And so, I asked the meeting participants if it’s fair that only he has glasses. Of course they all said yes, because he’s the only one who needs them. I explained that actually being fair or equal would mean that either everyone has glasses, or no one has glasses. But what equity or accommodation means is that you give people what they need. He’s the only one who needs glasses, so he’s the only one who has them. And so, when we think about accessibility in the workplace, people with disabilities want to come to work and we want our independence just like everyone else. We just need different things to be able do that.”

ERGs like VIDA are grassroots, employee-led groups to connect employees with like interests and mindsets. ERGs can represent any kind of unique collective or topic areas within CWB.

Martin, who’s also CWB’s Cyber Security Awareness Manager, joined VIDA as one of its first members when it was created near the start of the pandemic. A main focus for the group is providing education and resources to help make the hiring process and workplace more accommodating and inclusive for employees with disabilities or living with chronic illness or disease. Incidentally, when Martin left CWB for a year to pursue a role outside the organization, what brought her back was seeing VIDA’s efforts reflected in a job posting.

“I noticed the posting included some sentences welcoming individuals with disabilities. I really liked the message. I told my friend, I feel like this is written for me – like I’m the person they want. I’d never seen something like that. So, for me that was one of things that got me thinking, wow I need to go back there,” says Martin. “It’s kind of amazing to see what VIDA’s accomplished in the past couple of years. I think when you’re in it maybe you don’t notice it as much. But from the outside it really stood out to me. In the interview, I disclosed my disability and was offered accommodations. I’m really happy I came back.”

From both her involvement with VIDA and her lived experiences, Martin offers the following insights that business owners can use to create an environment that’s supportive and accessible for people with disabilities – whether that’s employees, customers, vendors, or anyone else the company and its people engage with.

 

  1. Have an accessibility plan for your organization – and for how your leaders will support it: “The way I view it, there are two parts: There’s the direction from the organization itself and then there’s the role of your leaders within that – how you’re setting your leaders up for success in supporting people who need accommodations. Some people may have never interacted with someone with a disability before, and they genuinely don’t know what to do or where to start.”

  2. Approach others with empathy and awareness, rather than assumptions: “Sometimes people assume there’s underlying malice with, for example, people not being on time – or communication struggles, like being too direct or seeming aloof or not paying attention. But maybe this is due to a disability or caring for someone with a disability. So, try to approach people with an open mind, believing instead that they’re well intentioned, and come at it from a place of how you might help. Because one of the dangers with making little assumptions without seeking to understand is that they’ll factor into how you perceive someone – and that can then factor into how you view their work or how you view them as a person.”

  3. Know that disabilities can be visible and invisible: “I think the VIDA group especially is a little bit different and really highlights this – its membership is quite broad. Because there are people who don’t even know they have disabilities. And there are people who don’t consider what they have to be a disability. And there are people who only have physical disabilities, and people who have cognitive disabilities. And then there are caregivers who have their own needs and perspectives. Again, it comes down to empathy and not making assumptions about what you see or don’t see.”

     

  4. Try to meet people where they’re at. “Because disabled people are in the minority, we usually have to go 90 to 95 per cent of the way and then others will meet us. But it can be really difficult for us to go that 90 or 95 per cent, and I think education and awareness about disabilities and accommodations would really help with that. For example, if there’s a course on accessibility don’t just offer it to the one person on the team who’s disabled – perhaps everyone on the team should take it so they better understand one another.”

     

  5. To build trust, you need to create safety.What CWB did as the first step was to create that safe environment through education and awareness, and by walking the talk in actively supporting initiatives like VIDA. Because if you’re not comfortable with your leader you’re less likely to disclose that you have a disability. And if you’re not comfortable disclosing your disability, you’re also not as likely to request the accommodations you need. I’ve been an advocate for mental wellness and disabilities in my personal life, so I’m pretty comfortable with doing this at work too. That said, I know others can be apprehensive about disclosing their disabilities or having these conversations. So it’s important to a create a space of acceptance, empathy, and support that plays out in practice." Martin adds some ways to create a safe space include sensitivity training for leaders (and staff) and educating leaders on physical (visible and invisible) and cognitive disabilities.

    "With my role in Accessibility, meetings with CWB VIDA are a great sharing opportunity. I can provide background on what’s in place at CWB and I also learn of members’ ideas or challenges. Together, we can look at ways to improve what we do or develop new solutions. I also ask VIDA to support initiatives I’m working on. It’s a great partnership – the group brings valuable lived experiences and insights to our Accessibility program.” – Keith Todd, Senior Manager, Regulatory Compliance

     

  6. Give employees a voice and a role: “To me I think that having an employee group dedicated to any kind of equity, diversity or inclusion area just shows the organization’s willingness to follow through on it. The way accessibility standards are written is to accommodate people to the point of undue hardship. To me, that’s basically saying ok, make it so it’s not too hard for them. I think having an ERG like VIDA takes things much further than just checking a box. It demonstrates that commitment that you want to listen to your staff, you want them to be supported and you want them to have a safe space with people who understand them. It shows that the organization wants you to contribute to the direction. It’s nice to know you’re part of something bigger.”

  7. Ask how you can help. “It absolutely comes from a good place, but people can sometimes jump the gun on helping instead of first asking how they can help. And what happens is, especially with people with physical disabilities, sometimes the way the help is given is almost taking away some of their autonomy and independence. For example, pushing someone in a wheelchair without first asking if this is the support they want or need. Most people with physical disabilities are used to that way of life, so it’s more about helping them feel independent and like everyone else. What that looks like is simply asking, is there something I can help you with?”

 

For Martin, investing in creating the right environment and supporting it through your people is key for improving accessibility in business. Doing so provides the safety to ask for what you need, the empathy and awareness to ask others how you can help, and enables the accommodations people need to thrive.

“It’s building trust from the get-go,” says Martin. “I’ve learned I will leave leaders and I’ll leave cultures – but I’ll also follow leaders and follow cultures. And I just couldn’t shake the CWB culture. I find it really good here.”

 

Resources:

Universal Design for Learning: UDL Guidelines

Accessibility Services Canada: Resources

Rick Hansen Foundation: Accessibility – Resources

Government of Canada: Accessibility Standards CanadaMaking an accessible Canada for people with disabilities

Microsoft: Accessibility help & learning

 

About CWB’s accessibility practices:

Accessibility