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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Willey

Creating a More Accessible, Inclusive World: Insights from the #DisabilityAdvantage Conference

Although COVID has sent us all into a tailspin and our world has turned upside down, there is something important to celebrate--the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One bright spot that has emerged with the norm of working remotely is that hundreds of innovative companies and tech leaders are working harder than ever to make virtual communication more accessible for the one billion people globally who live with a disability.  While there has been significant progress, there is still a long way to go.

Smart companies are focused on inclusive hiring, contracting with Disability-Owned Business Enterprises, and creating accessible tools and technology for all--not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes good business sense. Research reveals that leading disability-inclusive companies stand to gain as much as 28% higher revenue, double the net income and 30% higher economic profit margins than their peers.

Disability:IN, the association that certifies and supports Disability-Owned Businesses in the U.S., hosted top leaders from every industry vertical at the #DisabilityAdvantage conference this week. The goal? Help companies join forces by sharing best practices and insights to build more inclusive workplaces. The association has also launched a new “Are You IN?” campaign, a call to action for everyone to help create an inclusive global economy for people with disabilities. Here are some of the key themes, insights and advice from leading organizations; leverage their best practices to help your company realize inclusivity for all.

Measure What You Treasure

If you don’t know where you are, you can’t track progress towards your end goal. The latest Disability Equality Index helps organizations understand where they are today so they can build a better path for the future. Access the 2020 findings here. A great first step is to register for the 2021 Disability Equality Index. While it may seem overwhelming to get started, and you may be concerned by where your company falls short, Fidelity’s Hale Pulsifer explains why you should take that initial leap: "We were initially scared to take the DEI, but it served as a roadmap and playbook to help on our journey…for accessibility."

Christopher Bylone, the Global Diversity & Inclusion Manager for IFF, shares that sentiment: “It isn’t a scary process; it’s a fulfilling process.” The DEI helped start their internal conversation and ultimately helped the company reach its accessibility goals. Many leaders have never even used the word “disability” before, but now it’s part of the lexicon--both in the U.S. and around the world. As Bylone points out, “Don’t participate in the Disability Equality Index for the sake of participating--it’s not about a logo for your website. It’s about creating the change in your organization that you want to create. It’s about creating a strategy for where you want to go and how you are going to get there.”

Making Tech--and the World--Accessible to All

Product accessibility--and the process to make that vision a reality--was the consistent theme for the Tech Plenary that featured accessibility leaders at Google, Apple and Microsoft. They are transforming who they include and how they approach the process of thinking differently. For example, Microsoft is now hosting Accessibility Hack-a-thons to tap into the creativity of 7,000 developers, plus the company is building 65 Accessibility Leadership teams across the global business.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Chief Accessibility Officer, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, expressed that to drive meaningful change, it’s critical to manage accessibility like a business--give it a budget, resources and attention… and include people with disabilities in the process.

Google’s Director of Accessibility, Eve Andersson, pointed out that the focus now is more expansive than just making tech accessible to all; it includes how people can use tech and augmented reality (AR)/Virtual Reality (VR) to make the world more accessible. Google’s new on-screen Braille keyboard allows blind users to type without lugging around hardware (image 1 inset).

In addition, the company’s “Action Blocks” (image 2) help people with cognitive disabilities benefit from a visual home screen. And Live Transcribe—a service for deaf or hard of hearing--makes conversations more accessible and even captures sound effects and other nuances. This is a gift for someone like me who is hard-of-hearing and missed far too many communications! (see image 3).

Apple’s Director of Global Accessibility Policy & Initiatives, Sarah Herrlinger, noted that since “15% of the world’s population has a disability… you need to make everything accessible.” It was exciting to learn about their tech advancements for the hard-of-hearing and deaf communities:

  • “Voice Over Recognition” tech is a screen-reader that includes image description (one sentence human-sounding description) and uses machine learning to understand what an image is and then represent that in the most human sounding way possible;

  • Headphone accommodations amplify or dampen specific sounds for music, movies and phone calls. Users can create custom audio setups to incorporate their own audiograms or set personal sound preferences. Apple developed this on devices so it’s not in the cloud and it’s also more private.

  • Sound Recognition provides visual notification pop-ups for alarms or doorbells. It’s also on device vs in the cloud.

The iLab Next Gen contest brought together college students to imagine a future that leverages innovative technology to make the world accessible. The students pitched their ideas to a panel of judges from Google, Ernst & Young and Discover Financial Services. The winning team developed a crowd-sourced concept to share communications, similar to WAZE for travelers, so everyone can ‘hear’ those announcements in airports, train stations and more (I love this idea--here’s hoping the Google judge funds it!). It serves as a reminder that we can learn a great deal from younger generations who may lack experience but are more adept at thinking ‘outside of the box’ to problem solve in unique ways. Given that, if you don’t currently mentor others, here’s an incentive to get started! Mentorship offers win-win benefits--younger generations can leverage their tech know-how, passion and unlimited mindset to help you and your business grow.

As advocates of gender equity in the workplace and world, the all-women panel at the Tech Innovations session was particularly inspiring. These innovators lead the charge at Google, Microsoft and Apple, and remind us that women have high EQ (Emotional Intelligence) and AQ (Adaptability Quotient) which makes them well-suited to accelerate innovation and inclusivity (see image 4).

Perhaps the most magical part of the conference—everyone was truly united in their mission to make the world more accessible. I have never witnessed competitors come together so collaboratively to share ideas, best practices and lessons learned along the way toward achieving a common goal. Every business and world leader should steal a page from the inclusivity ecosystem playbook. It’s easy to imagine a world without limits if we all join forces to ensure that same world is accessible to all.

To learn what you and your organization can do to be a part of the “IN” crowd driving positive change and cultivating an inclusive and accessible world, visit Disability:IN and take the first step.

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