Accessibility in leadership is a popular term these days. It is used profusely in Executive Coaching and thrown around generously in discussions about Change and Stakeholder Management. The Harvard Business Review explains that the most important aspect to an accessible leader is one who can admit when they have made mistakes. Forbes says it is important to be a leader who “defaults to yes.” The accessible leader is acknowledging and graceful interpersonally as well as proficient in using technology to reach others. The accessible leader is good at opening doors, inviting diverse opinions, and listening to understand.
I recently had an experience that flipped all of the above on its head and profoundly changed my views on what makes an accessible leader. I had surgery and was unable to walk for more than three months. As I used my scooter to get around, I noticed how the streets we expect people to navigate with wheel chairs, canes, and crutches are filled with challenges. The very bumps to help people gain traction with a wheel chair, can become a barrier to those on crutches or with canes. My use was temporary and yet as real as the impatience of drivers, the frustration of other pedestrians and the exhausting nature of going anywhere at all. My experience with limited physical accessibility was brief and yet profound. I knew in a way I have never before known that people face these challenges every day, from diverse backgrounds, with varied obstacles to overcome before even arriving at the meeting.
So many questions started to formulate around this concept of accessibility and how it looks in light of this new knowledge and experience. Why should anyone be limited in work flow and contributions based on challenges with accessibility? What is being done to make our workplaces more accessible so that we invite everyone to the table?
My desire for contribution was alive and well yet the obstacles I faced getting to the table were sometimes overwhelming. It was then that I came across the story of Jordyn Castor. Blind since birth, at 22 she is now one of Apple’s leading engineers. What others call a disability, she sees as heightened awareness as she works under the mantra, “inclusion inspires innovation.” The senior manager for global accessibility policy and initiatives at Apple, Sarah Herrlinger, states that the company is dedicated to making inclusivity features standard, not specialized.
Apple made the first touch screen device that was accessible to the blind via VoiceOver. This technology is something all users access every day, but for the blind community, it was revolutionary. As Eve Andersson, head of Google’s Accessibility efforts states, “The accessibility problems of today are the mainstream breakthroughs of tomorrow.” She is a firm believer that accessibility is a basic human right and if it is valued as such, it benefits everyone.
There are many projects underway such as Microsoft’s computer vision-based accessibility project called Seeing AI, that reflect inclusiveness and accessibility as a value. It is exciting and energizing to feel the momentum industry leaders are creating and, based on my experience, we have a long way to go.
The first time I ventured out in my scooter on my way to a meeting, I thought to myself “all of this intrinsic and emotional accessibility I have been coaching leaders to embrace seems like a luxury.” Upon further research and reflection, I realize accessibility is a value. It is not an initiative or a strategy. It is at the core of what makes strong businesses even stronger, from top to bottom. If as a leader, you value accessibility both inside and outside of your work environment, then you are capable of attracting the best of what anyone brings to the table. It sounds so simple and yet …
The one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives. How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better? ― Steve Krug
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