Taking stock of inclusive workplaces

Blueprints on wooden table

Exploring accessibility and inclusivity for Deaf and Blind OSSTF/FEESO Members

“What does a fully inclusive workplace look like for Deaf and Blind Members?” It may seem like a straightforward question, and the answer should simply be, “the idea that everyone should be able to use the same facilities, take part in the same activities, and enjoy the same experiences, including people who have a disability or other disadvantage,” (Cambridge Dictionary).

However, it is not a simple question. Often, employers (and some employees) like to think they have done their part in making the workplace more inclusive by developing a policy that addresses inclusion for all. Understanding inclusion and how to be inclusive is more about culture; it requires being understanding, open-minded, accepting of change, and truly collaborative. In my view, the collaboration part and the culture of the inclusion process requires a lot of time, effort, and willingness on both sides to work together.

Often I go into meetings and discussions with hope that authentic collaboration is going to happen. Employers and managers have asked for my feedback and perspective on making a place more inclusive. I do my research before the meetings, I write notes and summaries of ideas and suggestions that I present to the groups of people seeking my input; but then, the collaboration is only superficial. Employers want to look like they are collaborating with me, or other people like me, when in fact, they have already created their own ideas of what inclusion in the workplace should look like. So, after the “collaborative” meetings, I often see that none of my suggestions are put into action, or the employers choose only the easiest and simplest recommendations, ignoring everything else that needs to go into pushing the workplace to be (more) inclusive. Sometimes it takes more than a gentle nudge to help people grasp the types of changes that are required to create truly inclusive practices. Change the approach, the goal is the same—true inclusion.

The most important thing that anyone can do to make a place more inclusive, is to include the disabled and marginalized people in the room where decisions are being made. Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” Let’s also apply that sentence to everyone else: “Deaf/Blind/disabled/marginalized people belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that Deaf/Blind/disabled/marginalized people are the exception.”

Another point to understand is that inclusion often requires accommodations before a space is developed—not after it is developed. For example, when creating a space, consider ALL the accommodations before the space is created. Ramps benefit all—what if you broke your legs, had surgery, or twisted your foot? Subtitles benefit everyone—what if you need to participate in a Zoom webinar, but you are sitting next to your sleeping baby and you cannot turn up the volume out of fear of waking up the baby, or if the audio is not working properly on your laptops? The best accommodations benefit everyone. Anyone can become disabled any day; anyone can suddenly become Deaf, Blind, low-vision, or unexpectedly have Deaf, Blind, low-vision children.

In addition, no two Deaf/Blind/disabled/marginalized people have the same needs, beliefs, or experiences. A group of disabled people may have similar needs, but we are not all the same. For example, two Deaf people may prefer different American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters; one may like to sit in the front and in a corner of a room to see the interpreters more clearly like I do, another may prefer to blend in with other people, sit in the middle of a room, and not be so easily identified as the Deaf person in the room. We may have varying ASL fluency and levels of understanding different ASL interpreters, in the same way non-Deaf people understand various dialects differently. Blind and low-vision people are also all different—some have more sight than others, some can only tell when it is dark or light, and some have tunnel vision. Would you provide the same sight-based services to all Blind and low-vision people with various degrees of sight? I do know a few people who have suddenly become Deaf without warning, experiencing a sudden life-changing event. Would they have the same ASL knowledge, ASL fluency, and understanding of Deaf culture and identity as other Deaf people who have been using ASL their whole lives?

Inclusion is more than checking off a list to ensure that you have done all the things that you are expected to do. Inclusion is a feeling, a culture of belonging and community, where everyone is valued and respected.

When collaborating to make your workplace more inclusive consider:

  • Are there policies on inclusion in your workplace? How can employees report discrimination? Are the employees protected from reprisals if they report discrimination or demand accommodations?
  • Is the policy and the reporting process clear? Do the employees know that they exist, do they know where to find them, and is the policy regularly reviewed and updated?
  • Can you request consultation services from various organizations and associations for the Deaf, for the Blind, and others?
  • Are workshops and professional development training regularly provided? Are these trainings accessible, affordable, and open to all?
    Can you ask employees and colleagues who identify as Deaf/disabled/marginalized for their feedback? Are you prepared to take all their feedback and put them into action? If not, why not?

Most importantly, let us make the decisions for us, in the workplace. Do not make excuses for why our needs cannot be met; instead, if you do not know how our needs can be met, ask us how.


About Tamara Witcher
Tamara Witcher is the President of District 30, Provincial Schools Authority Teachers (PSAT).

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