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'Accessibility is a journey': A DEI expert on disability rights

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As HR professionals dig into the accessibility aspect of DEI, potholes abound. “Accessibility is one of those terms that engenders a lot of anxiety for folks,” Kelly Hermann told HR Dive. “They’re like, ‘I don’t want to do it wrong.’ I don’t want to be seen as the person who is going to kick the person in the wheelchair or, you know, be discriminatory,’” she recalled.

As VP of access, diversity and inclusion for the University of Phoenix, Hermann addresses campus accessibility concerns. She shows up for students with disabilities, as well as faculty and staff. As Hermann and her department educates community members on how to show up for their colleagues and course-takers, they seek to assuage worry with one key reminder: Accessibility is a journey.

“You’re not going to get to a certain place and say, ‘That’s it. Everything’s accessible. I don’t have to worry about this anymore.’ There’s always going to be some work to do,” Hermann said. “You’re going to learn some things, you’re going to hit some potholes, and that’s something that we have to expect along the way.”

Often, employers jump to the obstacles that exist in physical spaces: nonexistent ramps for wheelchairs, manual doors that lack motion sensors, and the like. But the digital world presents challenges as well. Hermann and the U Phoenix accessibility team likes to “demystify” disability for campus members seeking their counsel, she said.

Accessibility is an exercise in thoughtfulness

For example, Hermann said, “PDF documents are notoriously inaccessible, because they’re not structured correctly.” A person using assistive technology may still be unable to access the content, she continued. Similarly, when sharing links, understand that a screen reader can only do so much to guide a worker to the right URL, she said.

“Are you making those links descriptive and are you using keywords? Or are you just saying ‘click here’ and that’s your link?” Hermann asked. Like a sighted person, an individual with a disability can also scan a webpage for links with assistive technology, but this happens audibly, Hermann said, “They tell that tool to skip by link and this is what they hear: ‘Click here.’ ‘Click here.’ ‘Click here.’ ‘Click here.’ With four links on the page all hyperlinked with ‘click here,’ [they] don’t know where [they’re] going.”

Hermann is a big advocate of weaving accessibility into every aspect of the workflow. Over the course of her conversation with HR Dive, an ethos emerged: sure, technically, employers are well within their right to wait for a worker to request reasonable accommodation under the ADA, but why not be accommodating from the start?

Workplace disability rights advocacy extends back decades

Judy Heumann, disability rights activist

Alex Wong via Getty Images

Hermann said academia hasn’t always been so progressive, but there’s always been that aspiration. She spoke of how higher education was a pivotal battleground for disability rights since the 70s, nodding to UC Berkeley sit-ins in favor of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which had been vetoed by President Nixon.

Building on the foundation of Ed Roberts and his quadriplegic gang The Rolling Quads, Judy Heumann and Kitty Cone led a sit-in of more than 100 students at the San Francisco Department of Health, Education and Welfare offices in 1977. Five years prior, protesters With disabilities rallied against President Richard Nixon’s veto of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 of the act — which aimed to make public buildings accessible and to bar federally funded programs from discriminating against “otherwise qualified handicapped” job candidates — initially remained unsigned.

After the 504 sit-ins, Joseph Califano, US Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, remedied this in April 1977. “A lot of times, college students and the youth were the ones like, ‘You know what? I’m done,’” Hermann said to HR Dive. “They took so many lessons from the Civil Rights Movement.” (In this case, quite literally: the Black Panther Party cooked and delivered meals to the 504 sit-in protestors that government officials sought to starve and flush out.)