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Jan Lee headshot

Businesses Grow By Turning Disability into Accessibility

By Jan Lee

Forty-some years ago, when self-propelled wheelchairs were a new sight, rebuilding walkways became the defining emblem of physical accessibility. Cities invested millions of dollars into refashioning street corners to ensure that people using wheelchairs and walkers and those accompanied by guide dogs could safely cross the street.

These days, those gentle sloping ramps are an assumed part of the architecture not only in cities, but also small towns, parks, and national and state landmarks. So are accessible bathrooms, entrances and redesigned hotel rooms.

In fact, one has only to turn to the English language to realize how far we have come. Advocates for accessibility have worked hard over the years to elevate our consciousness in how we speak about people who are differently-abled. The phrase accessibility has supplanted our mindset about disability and handicapped limitations -- or at least, it has tried.

Granted, speak with anyone who suffers from mobility limitations, or cares for a child with physical or emotional challenges requiring around-the-clock support, and you may hear a different story. You will hear about the needs that aren't necessarily solved by wheelchairs, canes or walkers, and yet often set the boundaries against a lifestyle many of us take for granted.  And you will also hear about the ways that people, with determination and ingenuity, are learning to get around those limitations.

Today, the struggle to redefine accessibility isn’t marked by what can’t be done, or places one can’t go, but by the partnerships that make mobility of all kinds a possibility.

Take, for example, my service dog, Happy.

At 106 pounds and almost 3 feet in height, Happy, a German shepherd, is a commanding presence. But it isn't his size that makes him so formidable. It's his innate ability as a mobility dog to sense risk, medical challenges and unexpected circumstances. It is his intuitive ability to pick up on shifts in circulation and gait. And most importantly, it is his ability to work in sync with his handler and to anticipate needs in advance.

They are qualities that not only benefit an individual with mobility or medical challenges, but also businesses in today’s global marketplace, where many of the 56 million-plus Americans with disabilities work and do business.

In fact, the growing acceptance of service dogs is only one sign that society has become more inclusive toward diversity. The days of my aunt’s era, when a person restricted to a wheelchair often waged an unsuccessful battle to find work, are becoming a more distant memory. Today businesses, not just governments, are helping to redefine the inclusive society.

These businesses are opening the doors that allow talented people like my nephew, who has autism, to go to school and to hold a full-time, well-paying job as a tradesman. They have paved the way so that people like my brother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, could maintain a B2B company in a mobility-demanding profession. And best of all, they are continuing to change the mindset toward what a focus on diversity has to offer for a successful, dynamic and growing enterprise.

In recent years, a small number of companies have taken the lead on this issue. One such business is PwC, a professional services firm known not only for its support of workplace diversity, but also for its focused recruitment of individuals who stand out for their self-tailored ability to think outside of the box. And those are qualities, said Brad Hopton, that often distinguish individuals who have had to face the challenges of disability.

“When I hear the word 'disability' these days, I think of someone who is hard-working,” said Hopton, a tax partner and disability inclusion networks partner champion at PwC. It’s someone who has faced adversity in his or her own lifetime, he said, and is “accustomed to overcoming challenges with resolve” -- a person with “strong, strong technical skills, who will look at a problem with a fresh perspective." It may be a person who is disabled, or a caregiver who provides support for a family member with special needs, a role Hopton identifies with in his personal life as a parent to a disabled son.

“And this is the type of talent and the type of individual we want at PwC to really challenge that conventional way of thinking.”

Through its unique Abilities Reveal Itself (ARI) program, PwC is redefining how business sectors define the capable, skilled worker. It’s no longer just about a good education and a rudimentary, complementary work background. It’s about harnessing the intuitive talents that come from independent thinking and problem-solving.

“I have a whole team that is focused in on the sourcing of individuals with disabilities and actually reaching out to campuses,” Hopton told 3p. And finding those special candidates often starts with a little educational networking on site. “[In] some cases, we have to go to those schools and to connect the career-placement office with the disability-services office,” in order to ensure that individuals listed as disabled can receive the same priority career services as other students. “We actually kind of bring [the two offices] together on occasion and articulate what we are trying to achieve.”

At PwC, this focus has helped not only to harness top talent, but also foster trust in the workplace that the company means what it says: It seeks and encourages diversity. Staff members who need help or accommodation because of illness or disability can get assistance through PwC’s AbilityWorks program, without fearing for their jobs. And making the process more accessible, contrary to conventional thought, cuts costs.

“[For] less than $500 for an accommodation, you can change someone’s PwC experience and you can help them maximize what they can bring to our organization and our clients,” Hopton said.

But fostering an inclusive work environment doesn’t stop at the front door. It takes networking with clients and businesses. It means using the teachable moments to educate others about accessibility. It takes recognizing that, at the end of the day, there is a business imperative to supporting diversity, just as there is a moral or compassionate one: A clearly identifiable workplace diversity platform speaks volumes to clients and potential employees alike.

“It can’t just be lip service. It can’t just be messaging from the top. You’ve got to show it through the program and your activity on campus and the messaging that is going across your organization," Hopton advised. "You’ve got to live it.”

And consumers notice its success as well. Today’s accessibility frontier isn’t really defined by laws, but by those within business sectors who take the first step to ensure an open-door, rewarding environment for a person with a disability.

All of these actors -- the airline that openly supports families with autism; the bookstore owner, grocery store manager, librarian or clergy that takes steps to ensure their very first first four-legged customer can focus on his job while his handler is present; and the business that strives to make disability an invisible concept -- send a clarion message to consumers and companies alike: Inclusiveness is smart business.

Image courtesy of PwC

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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