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Creating a More Inclusive Workplace: A Practical Guide


1 in 4 US adults, or 61MM Americans, have a disability that impacts major life activities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet only 4% of employees, identify “as having a disability” in the workplace, reported the National Organization on Disability.

More individuals with disabilities are finding employment opportunities, but “only 1 in 20 young adults with learning disabilities receive accommodations in the workplace,” according to The National Center for Learning Disabilities.

The employment-population ratio for persons with a disability increased from 18.7% in 2017 to 19.1% in 2018, according to a 2018 US Department of Labor report.

Companies use a variety of resources to recruit talent with disabilities, including community partners and disability job boards. However, the National Organization on Disability’s 2019 Disability Employment Tracker revealed that only 13% of companies “have reached the Department of Labor target of 7% disability representation.”

There is still a long way to go then for true corporate inclusivity.


Hiring People with Disabilities Isn’t Just Right, It’s Proving Profitable

Disability champions, or companies “that stood out for leadership in areas specific to disability employment and inclusion” over the previous four years, proved to perform “above-average financially” in the 2018 report by Accenture.

“Champions achieved – on average – 28 percent higher revenue, double the net income and 30 percent higher economic profit margins over the four-year period we analyzed,” shared the report.

Not only do champions get access to a larger talent pool, but to a talent pool that increases their competitive advantage. “People [with disabilities], who have spent their lives adapting to challenges in their environment, can bring productivity, ingenuity and problem-solving skills to the workplace,” explained Training Industry.

Moreover, according to Harvard Business Review, “research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.

In fact, SAP’s “managers say that [the company’s four-year inclusivity efforts] are already paying off beyond reputational enhancement. These ways include productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and broad increases in employee engagement.

Nick Wilson, the managing director of HPE South Pacific – an organization with one of the largest inclusivity programs – says that no other initiative in his company delivers benefits at so many levels, reported Harvard Business Review.

Companies that want similar results can leverage employee training to drive inclusivity and growth.


Implementing Universal Design for Learning in The Workplace

Employee training programs can be designed with universal design for learning (UDL) techniques in mind. Instead of planning programs without considering employees’ diverse needs, and then making adjustments when needed, corporations can plan ahead intentionally.

For example, instead of waiting to discover you have an employee who is hard of hearing, deaf or has a learning disability, add real time captions to all virtual meetings with remote workers and embed captions in pre-recorded training courses. Corporations can offer transcriptions for these courses and meetings as well.

Instead of waiting to discover you have an employee with neurodiverse needs, such as people with autism or ADHD, or sensory issues, business leaders can make headphones available for employees to use as they work on their daily tasks.


Proven Benefits For All Employees

Inclusive approaches won’t only benefit specific team members, who will feel equally cared for and committed to the success of their work. This approach will benefit all employees.

Many employees do not disclose their disabilities, and some professionals just retain information better when they see it instead of hear it. Others may need extra support when the main spoken language in the company is their second or third language.

Designing corporate training for people with disabilities supports a wide variety of abilities and preferences, but also helps all team members personalize their learning paths and optimize their performance at your company.

Train Your Team About Inclusivity to Raise Awareness

Corporate culture is at the heart of thriving as an inclusive organization. Employee training programs are simply incomplete without a proactive effort to reduce stigma and raise awareness. To succeed, training programs must focus on both the challenges and rewards of inclusivity.

Focusing on the challenges that people with different disabilities face helps their coworkers support them more. Training could also help reshape organizational processes. Corporate learning leaders can gain valuable information about work processes that disempower and empower those with varying abilities, and use findings to set managers up for success when leading diverse teams.

Create Knowledge Sharing Programs

Give team members the opportunity to train each other. According to the Association for Talent Development, a 2016 study found that “in high-performance organizations, employees share knowledge with their colleagues at a rate four times greater than that of workers in lower-performing firms.”

Create forums for managers to share learned knowledge with each other. Sharing solutions can help provide employees with creative ideas on how to help employees with disabilities thrive. This knowledge sharing also helps keep professionals accountable for increasing inclusivity each year.

While some employees might be more sensitive, if those with disabilities feel comfortable sharing, companies could also organize sessions or groups where employees with disabilities directly share their challenges with company stakeholders and counterparts. Team members can benefit from gained perspectives of people with different viewpoints and, simultaneously, create opportunities for bonding.

Give Team Members with Disabilities the Tools They Need to Succeed

Another important step toward inclusivity is actively letting team members with disabilities know that the company is open to giving them more resources. Assign employees a go-to person to approach when encountering challenges to create a process and further transparency without fear of judgement.

It’s also crucial to make all employees aware of all available resources live and online to ensure even those who aren’t disclosing their disability publically are aware of them.


How to Serve Team Members Who Don’t Disclose

To help their non-disclosing employees succeed, companies should implement the UDL approach that many universities are now implementing. Offering captions and transcriptions for all virtual meetings and courses, supports all employees not just those who are hard of hearing for example.

Companies should also provide more forums for anonymous feedback. Managers could then be told that someone on their team has a certain disability, without revealing her or his own name. Anonymous feedback could include suggestions for changes in work processes or company culture that could better support all employees.

Companies who commit to diversity are doing well in the long run – both culturally and financially. They’re retaining employees, garnering the interest of potential employees who are intrigued by their goals, gaining employees’ trust, and increasing their bottom line.

When employees believe in a company’s corporate and cultural missions, they are more committed to its success and produce strong work as a result.

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Assistive Technologies Aren’t Just for ‘Special Needs’ Anymore

Schools are Implementing Technologies that Benefit All Students, Increasing Retention & Graduation Rates

Student retention is always a top concern for universities. Today, only 41% of full-time students earn their bachelor’s degrees within the standard four-year period, forcing institutions to reevaluate their offerings to ensure their students stay with them through graduation.

The six highest-ranked universities in U.S. News & World Report’s 2020 Best Colleges see graduation rates above 97%. These success rates are due to their ability and commitment to addressing and accommodating student needs proactively. These institutions understand that students do not all learn the same way. They provide multiple resources to create inclusive environments that account for a diversity of learning styles.

Currently, many universities enlist assistive technologies only after students with varying learning abilities request them to comply with the law. Research has shown that these technologies, particularly captions on live and on-demand videos, benefit the entire student body.

If more institutions adopt proactive approaches to education technology, they can create more inclusive environments and account for more personalized student learning. This inclusive approach, known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), benefits all students and has the potential to greatly increase university retention and graduation rates.


Adopting UDL Principles

A recent CAST study indicated that like fingerprints, no two brains are alike. This concept of neuro-variability is important for universities to understand. It takes into account that “each learner brings a unique blend of experiences and expectations to each learning event.” The UDL framework accounts for variability by providing accommodations that meet different learning styles, not just the needs of those with disabilities.

More and more students are “time shifting, screen shifting, and place shifting their studies” and using their devices to further connect to their campus, professors, and each other. University faculty are therefore charged with the task of creating and maintaining enhanced connections with their students.

Adopting the tenants of UDL is an effective response. UDL is often mistakenly associated with the extension of online technology (i.e. video captioning) only to students with varying abilities. Rather, UDL offers multiple means of representing information and content engagement for all, regardless of disability.

“UDL gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn and provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution, but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs,” according to the Center for Applied Special Technology.

Adopting UDL principles to create online course content allows higher education professionals to reach out, not only to learners with disabilities, but all learners, and retain them through the completion of their degrees.

It’s easy to see how assistive technologies like captions are beneficial for all students who come from diverse backgrounds. Education tech meets the needs of students who:

  • Are international and not native English speakers
  • Fall across the socioeconomic spectrum or are first-generation college students and come from backgrounds that lack certain resources that peers are privy to
  • Adults with children or full-time jobs and cannot study with audio out-loud
  • Many more use cases

According to research that dates back to 2008 by Crosling, Thomas and Heagney, interactive, engaging materials greatly benefit students who may have encountered challenges otherwise —not just those with disabilities. These materials remove barriers to success and help them persist in courses.

Captions and other assistive technologies also helpful in consuming content and experiences outside of the standard lecture halls. Consider all of the events that occur outside of the classroom, such as loud sporting events or large town halls with guest speakers. These events can be attended live, but also streamed remotely.

When assistive technologies are implemented for those present and those watching online, universities are truly facilitating inclusion in all campus activities. This feeling of togetherness shouldn’t be overlooked – it drives a ‘place of belonging’ and therefore student retention.


The Proven Impact of Education Technologies & Captions for All

Comprehensive research has shown the substantial benefits of assistive technologies, including captioning and live video captioning for all students.

Case Study by San Francisco State University

One of the strongest cases for adopting existing education technologies to empower all students comes from San Francisco State University.

Robert Keith Collins, an assistant professor in the College of Ethnic Studies, found that students’ test scores and comprehension greatly improved when captions were used while consuming videos. Collins’ began his two-year study by establishing a baseline for student comprehension. Then he turned on captions and noted changes in student performance.

“Not only were students talking about how much having the captions helped them as they took notes, their test scores went up,” Collins said. “During the baseline year, there were a lot of Cs. In the second years, they went from Cs, Ds and Fs to As, Bs and Cs. It was really significant improvement.”

Collins also noted that class discussions became livelier, with students recalling specific information and details shown in the videos, further proving the students’ improved comprehension.

“We’re living in an age where our students are so distracted by technology that they sometimes forget where they should focus their attention when engaged with technology or media,” he said. “Turning on captions seems to enable students to focus on specific information.”

The class average with captions was 7.18% higher and a full GPA point increase for students who used captioned video.


Case Study by SIGCSE

A 2019 study conducted by SIGCSE examined student performance in a video-driven learning environment with a focus on the impact of captions.

The results showed a statistically significant performance improvement after all students in a computer science course watched videos with captions vs. without captions. Students who used captions reported that they truly helped to “reinforce video material, maintain focus, and enhance comprehension.”


Case Study by Oregon State University

Oregon State University’s Ecampus Research Unit surveyed 2,000 students at 15 US institutions. They found that regardless of disability, a majority of students used closed captions at least some of the time.

90% of all students who use closed captions found them at least moderately helpful for learning.

Additional learnings:

  • 35% of respondents said they often or always use closed captioning when it’s made available
  • 14.6% of respondents said captions help them retain video information when studying
  • Students not reporting disabilities use captions almost as frequently, with more than 50% using them sometimes or more often –  only about 10% less than those reporting disabilities.


Case Study by The University of South Florida St. Petersburg

USFSP’s Distance Learning Accessibility Committee and faculty analyzed two online courses to determine the benefits of providing captioned media for students with and without disabilities.

This study examined 241 students enrolled in a captioned course, as well as the 334 students previously enrolled in the course prior to captioning. They also separately polled 66 students for additional insights.

13% of respondents indicated having a disability, of which only 6% of those indicated being registered with the OSDS. This discrepancy is a reality at most universities, showcasing another reason all students can benefit when assistive technologies are proactively provided to all. Some individuals with disabilities often do not feel comfortable disclosing their additional learning needs and requirements. They can suffer, and in extreme cases drop out as a result.

99% of students polled reported that captions were helpful, with 49% selecting ‘extremely helpful’ and 35% selecting ‘very helpful.’

This USFSP study also highlights and backs up a 2010 study focused on the helpfulness of captions for low-performing students (regardless of disability) in science classrooms. These students were given technology-enhanced videos with closed captioning which contributed to post-treatment scores that were similar to their higher-performing student counterparts.

USFSP’s research demonstrated the helpfulness of captions in a variety of ways:

  • Helps with clarification: “The closed caption helped when viewing [sic] the videos at home, because I have small children and at times they can be loud. The closed caption allowed me to read when I could not hear what was being said” and “Helped me because it’s not my first language. It was extremely helpful and I took tons of notes.”
  • Helps with comprehension: “They clarified any misunderstandings or miscommunications. Made the information easier to learn because I am more of a visual learner.” Caption data provides ways for students to study and further interact with video lectures. Video environments often allow you to search for keywords and concepts while the video is playing. This allows students to directly jump to concepts and terms they need more help with, boosting their chances for success on exams and in the long run making it to graduation.
  • Helps with spelling legal terminology: “If the professor said a word I didn’t understand I’d go back and read the caption, there were many legal terms that I did not know of and the captions helped me learn how to spell them.”
  • Helps with note-taking: “They helped because when I was taking notes I was able to pause the video and use the captions rather than rewind and repeat the video.”Research done by Locke, 1977; Nye, Crooks, Powley & Tripp, 1984 has shown that taking more comprehensive, accurate notes, which can be made possible with captions, correlates with better student academic outcomes.


Final Takeaways

The number of online courses and students learning remotely continues to grow. With more students enrolling in online courses, the potential for UDL principles to enhance higher education is increasing, according to Rao & Tanners, 2011.

The number of students enrolled who struggle with learning challenges is growing too. Law schools are also seeing an increase in the number of students with physical and cognitive impairments, according to deMaine, 2014. Across disciplines, students with disabilities participate in online courses at disproportionately high rates, according to Coy, Marino, & Serianni, 2014. Captions can, of course, continue to service these communities who rely on them, but the potential to service all students is even greater.

With a finite university focus on increasing student retention and graduation rates, university leaders are seeking ways to maximize student comprehension, meet the unique needs of all students, comply with ADA regulations and avoid potential lawsuits.

This might sound overwhelming, but research has shown it’s worth the time and investment. When universities become early adopters of learning tech and promote their abilities to provide students with multiple learning options, they not only attract new students, but see stronger retention and graduation rates.

“A student who is turned off to the educational system may not avail himself of these learning opportunities. A negative college experience can make a person shy away from formal learning approaches in the future. This is a great hindrance to job advancement.”

Whether it’s ‘fair’ or not, a university shoulders the future potential of any student who enters its doors, in-person or virtually. The implications of a bad experience last well beyond the education phase. This is a moment of opportunity – institutions can position themselves as thought leaders and solve problems that exist currently with inclusion and accessibility when considering the unique needs of today’s diverse student bodies.

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