Psychological Safety via Accessibility
How Creating an Accessible Product Helps Your Organization to Create Internal Psychological Safety
The Intraorganizational Benefits of Accessibility
Accessibility is often sold to companies for its externally-oriented values – it protects you from lawsuits, helps your users, etc. But accessibility is an important factor when looking inward as well. Along with other strategies, making inclusivity a core value in your workplace by prioritizing accessibility is a powerful way to foster psychological safety among your employees. In every way that matters, an organization that takes an active role in ensuring its product’s accessibility is better than one that doesn’t.
What is Psychological Safety and Why Does It Matter?
Psychological safety, a term first coined by Dr. Amy C. Edmonson, is a sought-after quality for any team to have. Dr. Edmonson defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”[i]. A key indication that psychological safety exists within a team is their willingness to openly discuss mistakes and problems, Edmonson said in a 2014 Ted Talk. She recommended framing problems as learning problems rather than execution problems, acknowledging your own fallibility (for both leaders and subordinates), and modelling curiosity by asking questions. This advice is easier said than done, however, and because it’s so general, it’s difficult to know how implementing it will look in a particular context. She emphasized that psychological safety is essential in any work setting where there exists both interdependency and uncertainty – something that would apply to any company focused on developing software.
When achieved, psychological safety seems to be the key to so many positive benefits; diverse teams perform worse than homogeneous ones, unless there’s psychological safety – then they perform better[ii]. Diversity that is reframed as inclusion rather than diversity for its own sake seems to produce better employee satisfaction as well as measurably increased productivity on an organizational level[iii]. And, unsurprisingly, inclusion just so happens to be essential to psychological safety. Psychological safety has also been shown to help organizations innovate and be more adaptive to change[iv]. In short, any organization would stand to benefit from psychological safety on every level, and how to attain it seems to be the question on everyone’s minds. Accessibility is a great place to start.
How Accessibility Affects Employees with Disabilities’ Psychological Safety
How can someone feel psychologically safe when they can’t perform basic tasks on their company’s website? There are, of course, logistical/legal issues with not prioritizing accessibility (there are antidiscrimination laws in place that in theory guarantee people with disabilities the right to equal employment[v], yet more websites have WCAG failures than don’t – and by a huge margin. A person who encounters accessibility barriers on a company’s website will likely be unable to apply for a job, as well as unable to operate the tools needed to perform the job if they make it through the hiring process), and in today’s economy of increasingly hybrid and remote work, an employee who encounters accessibility barriers in their workplace might be unable to communicate the issues they’re facing to their teammates and superiors due to those very issues. In that environment, a person with disabilities is even more marginalized than they would have been before the technological revolution and the widespread adoption of technology designed to make our lives easier. That is not psychological safety; it couldn’t be further from it.
Conversely, when an organization adopts accessibility as one of their values – when they are actively working toward making their product accessible – they are almost forced to talk about it openly among themselves. The organizational mindset shifts in a positive way. The company opens themselves up to hiring talent they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to, and once they’re there, a person with disabilities is more likely to be able to voice their ideas, ask questions, raise concerns, and point out mistakes, whether they be oriented toward the work itself or with the employee’s experience in the workplace.
When we don’t talk about something, especially something perceived as sensitive, a sort of cultural taboo develops around it, and disability is one of those topics. Removing the taboo by making accessibility a professional topic of interest makes for more open dialogue and more people with disabilities being included in the overall company culture. Additionally, people who might be masking disabilities either out of habit or perceived (or real) necessity may no longer feel that they need to.
How Accessibility Affects Employees without Disabilities’ Psychological Safety
The division between people with disabilities and people without is arbitrary and ever changing. If we view disability as a construct of society, then the same psychological safety that belongs people with disabilities as a result of prioritizing accessibility ought to come to people who don’t have systemic barriers to overcome[vi]. But even without that perspective, everyone ages. Everyone is liable to be injured or get sick. You can even be temporarily disabled, as anyone who’s gone through a difficult pregnancy knows. Everyone has loved ones who are also susceptible to aging, injury, and illness. To think that accessibility is irrelevant to someone who doesn’t currently have a disability is to err.
Maybe that doesn’t feel psychologically safe, but chances are, if you’ve given much thought to what it means to implement accessibility, you’re already aware of those facts. Likewise, in an organization that cares for its product’s accessibility in a real and thorough way, the team members involved in those decisions have also had the opportunity to come to those realizations.
A well-known syllogism: All humans are mortal; Socrates is a human; therefore, Socrates is mortal.
[image description: A picture of a statue of Socrates]
The thought that disability or lack thereof isn’t a status but a continuum we’re all on allows us to better prepare for when we might fall somewhere other than where we currently do on it. It also makes it feel less external, and eventually it makes it so that we adopt a mindset that is more inclusive than what it was before, since we no longer see disability as a quality you either have or have not. Overcoming that initial discomfort eventually leads to an acceptance of nuance that makes for a much more comfortable and confident experience of the world. It creates room for psychological safety internally and allows us to help promote psychological safety in others by holding space for them when, before that acceptance, it might have been difficult to do so.
A Universal Benefit
The knowledge that accessibility is important to the organization you’re a part of – that equity and inclusivity are promoted internally as well as externally – should also be a source of comfort in other areas of life. It means that your employer is more likely to view their employees as whole people with complex needs that can and must be accommodated. There is psychological safety in knowing that you’re employed by people who care. Adopting accessibility into your workflow is a great way of expressing that care.
[vi] This is not regarding any systemic barriers our society has in place other than those relating to accessibility; there are way too many of those for one blog post to address.
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