Veterans Matter

New Role for the C-Suite: Chief Accessibility Officer

Improving accessibility for veterans, seniors and all people with disabilities moves beyond compliance to become a core business value. Coordinating the effort is a new c-suite member: Chief accessibility officer.
By Royston Arch

Leading companies have a new executive in their c-suites. The chief accessibility officer is an executive position with far ranging responsibilities because the role is responsible for ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities, or other special needs, within the business and increasing accessibility for customers, suppliers, and anyone else who uses the products and services or will work with the company in some capacity. The chief accessibility officer’s ultimate responsibilities: Making accessibility a core value, empowering every employee in the organization to meet career and personal goals, and making sure accessibility is considered in everything the business does.

For veterans with disabilities, improved accessibility can equate to having more access to civilian jobs that fully utilize high-level skills developed in the military, having access to a support system, being included in the development of accessible products and services for people with disabilities, and finding increased opportunities as suppliers.

Some organizations are creating accessibility offices, depending on their size, but the purpose is always the same: Embed accessibility in a similar way that diversity is embedded in the organization.

Moving Beyond Compliance
Many companies have diversity and supplier diversity executives and other senior leadership positions, making the position of chief accessibility officer and an office of accessibility seem redundant at first glance.

Historically, the diversity function has been responsible for ensuring the company complies with government accessibility laws and eliminating conscious and unconscious bias in anything to do with Human Resources and the talent management process. Now businesses are increasingly creating a separate executive-level position and/or accessibility office. The reason is that it touches everything the organization does, from creating accessible workplaces to designing accessible products and services to complying with government laws and regulations.

Until the last few years, accessibility has focused mostly on meeting the Americans with Disabilities Act. That is just one responsibility.

IBM is a role model and leader in this new strategy. Frances West was appointed the IBM Chief Accessibility officer in 2014, and her role in this position demonstrates what it means to embed accessibility in an organization. She is responsible for shaping government policies, establishing IT accessibility standards, and developing human-centric technology and industry solutions. She ensures accessibility principles are included in product and services design and development to improve everyone's information consumption patterns. In an interview, West says accessibility is about personalization and technology is at the center of personalizing the user experience for all users.

The key words are "all users." All users include people with mental, physical and emotional disabilities and includes people of all ages. People with disabilities are driving accessibility as a core value for all users and a strategic imperative.

IBM is only one example of the organizational trend to address accessibility issues from the employee to customers to community members accessing company information sources. Making accessibility a core value and part of the business mission delivers advantages to the organization because the process of including accessibility principles in everything the company does will naturally lead to an expanded market reach.

Making Accessibility a Strategic Goal
Making accessibility a strategic goal may also lead to changes in the organizational structure in order to expand the effort.

For example, Microsoft appointed Jenny Lay-Flurrie as its new chief accessibility officer in January 2016, and the outgoing CAO assumed a new role to lead accessibility efforts in the Microsoft's Windows and Devices Group. Lay-Flurrie brings her personal experience as a deaf person in a hearing world to the position, and she now considers her disability as a strength because it made her a problem solver. These and other personnel changes were designed to strategically expand Microsoft's engineering capabilities concerning building out accessibility features in products and services. Many other companies are creating CAOs because true inclusion requires a deep commitment to all people.

Veterans with disabilities are a group of people with all types of disabilities, and the business focus on accessibility will benefit them. However, this is a two-way street. Veterans with disabilities bring distinctive capabilities and knowledge to employers. Their disabilities are rated in four areas: Cognition, ambulation, hearing and vision. They offer a wealth of information, and millions have multiple disabilities.

Beyond fulfilling job duties, veterans with disabilities can make major contributions to R&D project teams and to efforts to drive employment outcomes for all people with disabilities. They offer perspectives based on personal experiences and can participate in outreach activities, product designs and testing.

A business that successfully develops in-house accommodations can take that information and use it to develop more accessible products and services. IBM's experience has been that the more they learn about accommodating special needs, the more feature-rich and intuitive their products become.

Accessibility also influences supplier diversity because it is integral to a truly diverse and inclusive business. Improving veterans with disabilities’ accessibility to supplier portals, video conferencing, and other technology tools will enable entrepreneurial people with disabilities to access more opportunities.

The trend of creating chief accessibility officers is still in its nascent stage, but it offers exciting opportunities for all people with disabilities to become mainstream employees and consumers. Among the many advantages brought by large companies focused on accessibility is their global reach. These are the companies that offer hope and opportunities to people with disabilities around the world through example and their products and services. From any perspective, the creation of the position of chief accessibility officer in organizations is an exciting development.