In Canada, there are 645,00 Canadians with disabilities who can work in an inclusive labour market, but are not currently employed. Chances are, you know someone with a disability – but you may not realize it. Your morning coffee buddy or your team’s project lead could be living with a disability that they haven’t disclosed to you and that isn’t visible.
Today’s technology workplaces are increasingly placing an emphasis on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, but in a world where so many disabilities can fly under the radar, what’s needed to raise the bar on accessibility and inclusion? How can everybody contribute to a workplace environment that allows everyone to thrive?
It starts with nurturing a culture based on inclusivity and belonging, where people feel like they can be their authentic selves. Technology workplaces are fertile ground for this type of culture, because our industry is based on the principles of problem solving and connecting communities. Examples of how technology has bridged barriers are both extensive and inspiring.
I love to tell the story of how previous generations of deaf people would drop by each other’s houses unannounced, hoping the person they were visiting would be at home, because they could not use the telephone. Since then, technology has enabled new, more inclusive ways of communicating, including email, texting, smartphones, instant messaging, and video technologies that allow deaf people to sign with each other.
I’ve been honoured to have the opportunity to help drive that spirit of inclusivity and innovation at Amazon. In 2017 and 2018 I was part of a team that created Amazon’s iconic ‘smile’ logo in American Sign Language. We were looking for a way to connect to the deaf and hard of hearing communities to communicate that we recognize and embrace their cultural values.
I was also proud to be part of the team that created ‘Tap to Alexa,’ which lets deaf users interact with Alexa using touch on Echo Show devices and Fire tablets. For this project, I served as a customer advocate, representing Amazon’s spirit of ‘customer obsession’ and working backwards from customer wants and needs.
In a world that remains inaccessible for so many, the legacy of the Disability Rights movement has taught people with disabilities the importance of self-advocacy. People with disabilities – like myself – must be responsible for expressing what kind of support we need to be successful in our roles. Employers have a responsibility to listen to us. Each employee is an investment, and employers should be strategic in how they invest in supporting their teams.
We all have the responsibility to ‘do the work’ to better understand what it means to have a disability and take pride in the fact that disabilities represent diversity. Disability is not a dirty word. We must constantly challenge and recognize our biases when it comes to defining what it means to have a disability, and to break down the barriers that prevent inclusion. This includes rejecting ‘ableism,’ the type of discrimination that people with disabilities often experience, and creating workplaces where differences are valued.
In order to be inclusive, our workplaces need to constantly be set in ‘listening mode,’ where the ideas of people with disabilities (both apparent and non-apparent) can be heard, allowing a culture of belonging to thrive. Workplaces should also ensure the appropriate support for people with different disabilities to create communities and support each other more privately. This shared feedback contributes to an employer’s virtuous cycle of continuous improvement.
Brendan Gramer is a Senior Manager of UX/ Design for Payments at Amazon and the co-founder and current global president of AmazonPWD which is an employee resource group for people with disabilities and we focus on building a community that increases representation for people with disabilities at Amazon.