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Digital accessibility matters: Three steps to an equitable hiring experience

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/ESB Professional)

Stephen Hawking was not only one of the greatest minds we have known, he also was a role model showing how a person with disabilities couldn’t be stopped, thanks to the technology that freed his voice.

There are more than one billion people in the world with disabilities who have the capability to make a deep impact on today’s workforce. As we continue to adapt to a remote world, how well have we done in building the needed ramps and rails in our digital world?

Our remote life is not a temporary situation, as companies are now looking to abandon the office model (opens in new tab) and make a permanent move to this new way of work. The result is that we have hit the gas on digital transformation and accessibility is an important part of that.

Digital accessibility in the hiring process

When I joined iCIMS, the first thing I wrote on my office’s whiteboard wall was ‘centers of excellence’. Below that, I wrote ‘performance, security, localization, architecture, design and accessibility’ [bold]. Each of those pillars represents specialty skills, but many software companies do not consistently build product with these skills in mind. For us, every product release needs to meet these standards, as they represent what we feel software should accomplish.

‘Technology can empower people to achieve more, help strengthen education opportunities and make the workplace more inviting and inclusive,’ states Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer at Microsoft. When it comes to raising the bar on accessibility, Microsoft leads the way. The team has built a robust career site (opens in new tab) dedicated to inclusive hiring for people with disabilities. And it doesn’t stop there. Microsoft requires partners to have the same accessibility standards that they hold their own team to – it’s a foundational requirement before a vendor can work within their ecosystem.

Currently, millions of Americans are living with military service-connected disabilities, so accessibility standards are extremely important in veteran hiring as well. Comcast NBCUniversal aims to hire 21,000 veterans, military spouses and National Guard and Reserve members by the end of 2021 through its award-winning military hiring program (opens in new tab). Comcast is a military-friendly employer right down to the start of the hiring process, where many veterans need to identify their transferrable skills. All the organization’s open roles are matched to a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) code, so a search for the MOS code 21B (combat engineer) returns numerous results for roles in engineering operations and reliability engineering.

Microsoft, Comcast and an extensive list of other enterprise organizations have prioritized hiring tech accessibility to ensure that an equitable employee experience begins right at the start of the hiring process.

Here’s how to make digital accessibility matter in your hiring

1.            Start with Empathy – Empathy is a core concept in the study of usability and accessibility, and it is one that every organization should consider. It is a powerful tool and is essential for understanding the needs of the users.

At iCIMS, our Empathy Lab offers a guided experience that allows our software developers to build an understanding of, and empathy for, people with disabilities. It’s a passion project for our team. I still remember how we were able to bring our leadership team through the experience so they could see first-hand how a user with a disability is able to search and apply for a job with our hiring solutions. They also saw how that experience differs when using an assistance technology tool, such as a screen reader or speech recognition software. In a remote environment, we can build awareness and empathy during live demos of screen readers, color contrast analyzers and automated accessibility-testing tools.

2.            Spend your Money on Access, Not Lawyers – Global companies of all sizes are held to government-mandated guidelines for physical spaces and digital experiences – but it has been under even more scrutiny. Neglecting to prioritize digital accessibility not only means missing out on engaging with skilled talent who are also potential customers, it is also a financial risk. From 2018 to 2019, the number of digital accessibility lawsuits increased by 177 percent in the US, with 2019 coming in at a total of 2,256 suits filed (according to Seyfarth Shaw partners (opens in new tab)). Many of those F500 companies settled at a cost upwards of $16 million.

Follow the guidelines set by the American Disabilities Act, Section 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Equality Act 2010, and the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, to name a few. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are published by the Web Accessibility Initiative staff who work with organizations around the world with a goal of providing a single shared standard for digital accessibility (web and mobile).

3.            Offer a Competitive, Inclusive Experience – An inclusive candidate experience sets the tone for your organization’s culture and values. Software accessibility in design includes providing content that can be presented in different ways. These can include assistive technologies that make it easier for users to see and hear content, as well as systems that can be operated solely with a keyboard or through other inputs.

An equitable job search experience supports the user’s understanding by its predictability, and it helps the user avoid and correct mistakes. The search function should include jargon recognition, conceptual searching and support for military occupational codes. It should also aid in general usability, since accessibility features bring a richer, multiple set of choices in how all users interact with the technology. We all have used similar features, such as captioning, voice assistants and text magnifiers, on our own mobile phones. 

People want to work at diverse companies. Diverse companies are more profitable and leaders know that diversity boosts engagement and innovation. But what we need to remember is that diversity is a result of inclusion, with accessibility being an important yet often forgotten piece of the inclusion plan.

Building an inclusive workforce means taking a close look at how [bold] we hire and how that impacts who [bold] we hire. The benefits of this scrutiny are the ability to widen our applicant pool, to build a diverse, high-performing workforce, and to double down on our commitment as an equal opportunity employer. We can shape the global workforce.

Most importantly, accessibility opens the door of opportunity to people with disabilities so that they too can have a big impact in their career and in their community – like the great Stephen Hawking did. At the end of the day, that is what all software should be doing.

Al Smith, chief technology officer, iCIMS (opens in new tab)

As chief technology officer, Al Smith leads the creative and technology teams behind iCIMS’ product portfolio, providing its 4,000+ clients with the industry’s leading cloud platform for recruiting.