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Ableism, Universal Design & Hiring


When organizations discuss justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) strategies and ways to combat biases, many tend to focus solely on ethnicity and race. Too often, ableism and conversations about disability are left out of “progress” and not prioritized, in part due to a lack of information, understanding, and exposure.


Biases are hard to combat, particularly when individuals lack exposure to information or the people that the biases target. Ableism is a subtle bias that permeates our daily lives, including in the workplace. In particular, it appears more heavily in an organization’s daily operations and hiring.


Job application requirements such as “able to lift 25 lbs,” “able to sit for long periods of time,” or having to manually input the text of their resume rather than submitting it as a PDF  — can all be significant hurdles for people with visible or invisible disabilities. These potential superstar candidates may decide not to apply to a job when subtle ableist requirements are present because of the unnecessary barriers that organizations include in their applications.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in 2020 for working adults without a disability was 7.9 percent, and the rate for working adults with disabilities was much higher, at 12.6 percent. Data for both groups clearly reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the disparity between the two rates indicate that a lack of accessibility continues to act as a major impediment for folx with disabilities, particularly to those who experience intersectional oppression.


We at CANOE know that by addressing your organization’s overall level of accessibility, you not only will be increasing equitable practices, but you’ll also be tapping into a pool of diverse perspectives and lived experiences that could enrich your organization.


What are ways orgs can be more accessible for disabled and neurodiverse communities?


Organizations often are unsure of where to begin and how to create a more inclusive, accessible work environment for differently-abled individuals. Many strategies exist that are cost effective and require little resources to implement. An easy place to start is learning about Universal Design and its applications towards reducing ableism and increasing accessibility.


According to the US Department of Labor,Universal Design (UD) is a strategy for making products, environments, operational systems and services welcoming and usable to the most diverse range of people possible. Its key principles are simplicity, flexibility and efficiency.”


Most notably, UD has been aligned with city planning as seen with curb cuts or ramps, whose original purpose was to create sidewalk accessibility for people in wheelchairs. However, a known tenet of universal design is how beneficial it is to everyone, considering that curb cuts provide ease of access for bikes, strollers, skateboards, elderly and more.


You’re now probably asking yourself, so how do we apply UD to our organization within a JEDI lens? Outside of city planning, UD’s principles of simplicity, flexibility and efficiency make it easily transferable to many different fields.



Since UD takes into account the broad range of abilities, ages, reading levels, learning styles, languages, and cultures that exist within any workforce, attempting to implement UD in the workplace will take on different forms. Its application in hiring for example, takes into consideration which job requirements are imperative to the core of the position and which create unnecessary complexity or insurmountable barriers for individuals with disabilities.


Other barriers in hiring include, but are not limited to:

  • a lack of accommodations for people with visual or hearing disabilities during interviewing;

  • video meetings or media that do not include captioning;

  • buildings that are inaccessible due to not having a ramp;

  • unavailability of accessible public transportation for people with mobility impairments;

  • a lack of accessible equipment needed for the workplace and home.

Of these barriers, the technology requirements should receive special attention due to the rise of remote work in recent years, in particular during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Monica Anderson and Andrew Perrin at Pew Research, “Disabled people are three times less likely to use technology when compared to those without a disability. Adults with a disability are about 20% less likely to subscribe to home broadband and own a traditional computer, a smartphone or tablet.”


Universal Design in a job description can be as simple as adding, “Please let us know what accommodations you might need when applying or if asked to be interviewed.

Eliminating barriers and better accommodating differently-abled job applicants when formulating a job description is much easier than you think. Universal Design in a job description can be as simple as adding, “Within reason, please let us know what accommodations you may need when applying or if asked to be interviewed.”


Job candidates increasingly value just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive organizations


Regardless of having a disability or not, job candidates nationwide want to see how organizations are focusing on the impact of their mission and how JEDI plays a role in their work.


“Companies recognize that they are being scrutinized more than ever by stakeholders and are committing to aggressive diversity targets. This year, 70 percent of job seekers said they want to work for a company that demonstrates a commitment to diversity and inclusion,” said Dan Schawbel, a bestselling author and managing partner at Workplace Intelligence, an HR research and advisory firm.


The positive impact of incorporating aspects of Universal Design and supporting an inclusive workplace can be much greater than you’d expect. If you would like to learn more about how we can help you center JEDI in your workplace operations, please visit our website, sign up for our newsletter here, or email us!

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