The Case for Change: What does disability look like?

This article is the first in a series created to help employers identify barriers to disabled applicants and employees and implement practical strategies for eliminating or minimizing those barriers to ensure maximum accessibility in the workplace. 

When you hear or read the word disability, what comes to mind? For many, the word may conjure the image of someone in a wheelchair, even though they know that disabilities don’t begin and end with mobility challenges. Any number of conditions can qualify as disabilities, including blindness, deafness, neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD and autism, and other non-apparent issues. Complicating matters further, these conditions vary in intensity and impact, creating differences in capability between people within the disability community and with their non-disabled peers. 

That said, a lifetime of subliminal messaging is hard to override.  

The international symbol of accessibility—an icon of a person in a wheelchair—was selected after a design competition in 1968, and it was baked into the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the “ADA”). 

More than 20 years later, the same design was updated in the Accessible Icon Project, to better depict independence. So, it’s understandable that this is what we imagine when the topics of disability and accessibility comes up.  

Sure, a symbol is not meant to convey all the complexities inherent in one term, but linking complicated topics to one image may stifle conversation and reinforce recurrent and harmful stereotypes. For example, the notion that accommodating individuals with disabilities is always accomplished through procuring a specific product

Wide angle view of happy Asian women co-workers in office workplace including person with blindness disability using computer with refreshable braille display assistive device. Disability inclusion.

Employers must consider the limitations of individuals with disabilities in the design and functionality of all spaces, including workspaces, to combat ideas about their limitations and foster accessibility.  

“I was born deaf, but I can walk fine,” says Meryl Evans, disability inclusion advocate, “So, a building that’s been designed to accommodate wheelchairs but doesn’t include closed captioning on the monitors still isn’t accessible for me, even though it is categorized as being ADA compliant.”  

This is just one of many examples of how the failure to consider and account for all types of disabilities excludes some individuals with disabilities. 

The ADA guidelines, like the term disability, are complicated. For example, a building with no ramp would not be considered “in violation” if built before 1990 when the guidelines were first published. Existing buildings are generally not required to comply with subsequently implemented accessibility requirements. 

As for closed captioning, per Title III, public spaces are required to enable accessibility, like ensuring the closed captioning function is activated. But display monitors aren’t considered part of the building; even if they were, buildings don’t always control how content is produced or shown. 

Equating the term “disability” with any one symbol may be exclusionary because all other disabilities are not represented. Therefore, to achieve truly inclusive environments, we must go further and apply what we learn through experience. More interactions with individuals who have an array of disabilities will help us understand and be able to anticipate needs. For example, even people who don’t have disabilities will safeguard against anyone feeling excluded or punished because of how they are built.  

The ‘D Word’ 

Disability is a legal term – under the ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who: 

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • has a record of such an impairment; or
  • is regarded as having such an impairment. 

Disability can be a divisive societal term that not everyone uses. People may feel that it carries a negative connotation and implicitly says there’s something wrong with them – especially if they struggle with a mental illness. Some in the mental health community feel that equating emotional or psychiatric challenges with a disability communicates the wrong message.  

The fact is, people with disabilities are in your life every day—sometimes, it looks like lipreading, using a wheelchair, or using a GPS-enabled cane. And sometimes, the accessibility tool being used isn’t visible. It’s important to remember that disabled is not synonymous with unable—a message Dylan Rafaty reinforces through his nonprofit, the North Texas Disability Chamber (NTXDC). 

Full length portrait of diverse business team with young woman in wheelchair all smiling at camera in office

From talk to action 

Rafaty founded the NTXDC in 2017, which is part community-building (fostering engagement between people with and without disabilities) and part community education. The organization evolved in 2021 and remains a community of advocates and allies who share the goal of advancing accessibility, equity, and disability inclusion in the region. Rafaty is earning his Ed.D degree in Organizational Change and Leadership and sees an opportunity to engage organizations as a disability inclusion leader. 

“The desire to be authentically inclusive exists,” he said. “But organizations may lack an understanding of the complexities that surround disability, and that oftentimes results in solutions that fall far short of making a meaningful impact.”  

Businesses may not realize how bad this can be for their bottom line—they could be leaving billions on the table by not figuring out how to leverage the skills and unique insights of employees in the disability community. (More on this topic in article two.) 

That’s in addition to the opportunity that consumers present. Bryan Gill, who leads the office of disability inclusion and doubles as the global head of neurodiversity at JPMorgan Chase & Co., says it’s a mistake not to consider how your products and services may be excluding a group of people. 

“According to Forbes, the disabled community, and their family and friends, is worth an estimated $13 trillion in annual disposable income,” said Gill. “From a business perspective, that’s an opportunity the industry as a whole would be foolish not to tap into. By including the disability community in your workforce, you are able to influence all business operations with disability inclusion in mind.”  

Universal design is the idea that accessibility is considered from the start rather than an afterthought. This, together with the Curb-Cut Effect—which demonstrated the multiplier effect of inclusivity—makes compelling arguments for rethinking how society can better include the disability community. 

Individuals with disabilities represent the largest global minority—and they are still represented by a symbol created six decades ago when Richard Nixon was president. Leaders in disability inclusion say the common thread through apparent and non-apparent disabilities is an innovative mindset and a creative approach to a range of daily challenges. That’s hard to depict in a single image. But we can evolve our understanding, consideration, and ultimately our impact. Let’s start now.