Are you really ready for a differently-abled employee on your team?

Individual wearing a caramel colored sweater on computer typing.

Jonathan Lucus, Executive Director of NSITE

Welcome to NSITEful! This new space is an area to  discuss, dissect, and share the ideas and efforts impacting the blind and low vision communities; comment on current events; and announce new initiatives in the DEIA space. As the Executive Director of NSITE, I wanted a place where my team and I can share critical updates not just on our own work, but amplify others working in this area and our thoughts on their work.

At launch, it felt right to start with one of the pillars of our work that feels urgent to us: accessibility. The proliferation of technology in this area coupled with the growing awareness of what accessibility is and requires feels like a spark about to burst into flame. For example, just a couple weeks ago, it received national attention that a visually impaired man – who happens to be a federal judge – was denied a ride by a Lyft driver who wouldn’t allow his seeing eye dog in the vehicle as he attempted to get to work at the U.S. Court of Appeals. The headline may be shocking for us who aren’t witness to the challenges faced by this community every day. How to address and improve accessibility is a topic we cover a lot in our day-to-day work as a team.

Luckily we aren’t often faced with situations like that of Judge Tatel. Rather, we work a lot with businesses to answer questions about the feasibility of accessibility and bringing in employees who are differently-abled from the rest of their staff. Some of the most common things we are asked:

  • Is it expensive to provide someone who is blind with the technology they need to do the job?
  • How do I arrange the office to ensure a differently abled person can get around?
  • How much of my team’s time will it take to get them acclimated?
  • Will they fit in with the rest of our team?
  • How can I ensure they can do the job?

These questions are all fair. The good news is, most employers are overthinking what it requires. The bad news is, that overthinking is what prevents progress. That’s where NSITE, and others working in this field, can help. We are experienced in partnering with HR teams to get the job of acclimation done quickly and correctly, saving a lot of time for both teams and avoiding unnecessary expenses.

The first step is really being honest if your team is ready. Anyone in human resources will tell you that a business needs to invest in all its employees, no matter who they are, or what role they fill in the company. It’s how relationships are formed, trust is built, and commitment on both sides cemented. Therefore, it’s important to be honest about whether a company is really committed to building a diverse, accessible work environment and to take the steps to make it successful.

If the answer is yes, great! There are some very common-sense actions a business can take to help ease the transition of your new hire into a valued team member once a company has decided it’s ready to move forward.

Designate a Team: Without a dedicated team with hours allocated to ensuring the success of an effort or program, DEIA efforts will likely be de-prioritized to put out more urgent fires. We have found that workers who are already passionate about this topic – which tend to be more mid- and early-career employees – can move the needle much faster than more senior colleagues who often have other priorities on their plate. These associates often have more time, energy and inclination to be sure things are done properly and thoroughly and view it not just as career-building experience, but the right thing to do.

Expenses: We know the bottom-line matters to everyone in business. But the short answer here is the most important one: it is not expensive to be accessible. The technology that most blind and low vision individuals need to access and use common office programs is already built into most software or is an inexpensive add-on. The cost of these accessibility tools usually ranges from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, at most. If you’ve purchased extra monitors or other home office equipment for employees in a remote or hybrid environment – you already have the muscle memory to do the same for a BVI employee.

Onboarding for Success: As with any hire, setting up a person for success is critical to forging a mutually beneficial relationship. Be open and honest with your new hire. To start, arrange a meeting between HR and your new hire’s manager. Make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of goals and expectations. Ask questions and listen.

  • What do you need from us?
  • How can we make your transition smooth?
  • Do you require any special accommodation or technology for you to do this work?

Keep in mind: Blind and low vision individuals do not apply for jobs for which they are not qualified. If anything, we have found they are typically overqualified for a role. By focusing on what it takes to do the work – not the work itself – everyone can quickly get on the same page. The bonus point is that this  avoids the individual needing to discuss or justify their disability as they are trying to onboard.

Logistics: While many blind and low vision employees prefer a work-from-home office structure, like any employee, some thrive in a real-time team environment. No, you don’t have to rearrange your entire office! Of course, trip hazards should be removed, and teams should refrain from frequently moving around office furniture.  But blind individuals and those with low vision are skilled at figuring out the layout of a room and navigating it, and rely mainly on habit to do so. Do not over-help. 

And on the subject of over-helping, in some office environments, it may be useful to have a team meeting to help educate your other employees about working with a blind or low-vision individual. Simple things, such as when it is appropriate to help and how to help their new colleague, recognizing that most sighted people underestimate the abilities of a blind individual.

How’s it going? Arrange regularly scheduled check-ins to find out how it’s going from their perspective and their manager(s). As with any new employee, some adjustments may need to be made from either partner that prove the value of this employee. There is no better way to take a temperature check for all parties than with an open, honest conversation.

If you are thinking of creating a stronger, more diversified team in your business, feel free to reach out to NSITE. We are happy to answer any questions you have, discuss your staffing needs and help you find a good fit for your individual needs and talk further about how you can set up your new hire for success.

We look forward to sharing more here in the coming weeks and months in this space!

Jonathan Lucus, MPA, EML is the Executive Director of NSITE, a DC-based non-profit that connects corporate leadership to exceptional, dedicated employees, and supports organizations across the entire continuum of corporate training, talent recruitment, talent development, onboarding, and long-term support. He was named one of Business Insider’s Top 33 HR Leaders and is currently a Doctoral Candidate at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.