Making sure people with disabilities can work is a passion of mine. This cause has special significance for me because I have struggled with congenital orthopedic issues for many years. I have dedicated my career to building corporate accessibility programs designed to drive inclusion and outreach for people with disabilities. Helping those with disabilities stay in the workforce became even more difficult when the COVID-19 pandemic closed much of the world in 2020. For many, remote work has become a welcome change. But for those with disabilities, it has become another hurdle to overcome. While there are some benefits, such as the elimination of commuting and more flexible schedules, the increased reliance on inaccessible collaboration tools has been a significant barrier.
Unfortunately, many of our daily tools — from messaging apps to videoconferencing software — are not designed for people with disabilities. In fact, our original audit showed that more than 85% of the software used at VMware is inaccessible for people with disabilities. The reliance on inaccessible tools has contributed to the skyrocketing unemployment numbers for people in the U.S. This is why VMware is working to make our own software more accessible. We are also leveraging our position as a force for good by pushing our third-party vendors (whose tools and solutions we procure for our employees’ use) to improve accessibility, as well. The fact is that we at VMware haven’t done enough for our own employees. This is changing now.
What is accessibility (and why does it matter)?
To understand why we are so passionate about making these changes, it is important to understand what we mean by the word “accessibility.” Accessibility is the practice of making software and websites as easy to use as possible (for the greatest number of people possible). This could mean adding closed captioning for those with hearing challenges or increasing the page contrast or changing the color of a user interface for people with vision challenges.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 15% of the world’s population has some form of disability. Those who have never struggled with a disability may not understand the impact accessibility has on the lives of millions of people globally who don’t have equal access without the use of assistive technology. Being locked out of sporting events, parties, video games, websites, software, classes, jobs and more can make those with a disability feel alienated, isolated, and it can make it difficult for them to work. Making places, activities, and work tools accessible extends an invitation to participate and to feel included and valued. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) enumerates an international standard of 50 guidelines that help ensure that someone with a disability or combination of disabilities can use websites, native apps, software, or documentation without assistance. Accessible software helps keep people with disabilities in the workforce, which, in turn, makes the workforce more diverse.
As I mentioned earlier, the accessibility gap has only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. The unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities since the start of the pandemic is now over 80%. That means four out of five people with disabilities in the U.S. are not working.
The issue goes beyond VMware’s ability to support its employees. It also impacts our ability to recruit new team members. We have had to modify inaccessible software in house for new employees with accessibility needs, because only 15% of VMware’s internally used systems and tools are currently accessible under the WCAG guidelines.
Using VMware’s muscle to close the accessibility gap
Here’s how we have begun to address this issue. We started by training our employees to make deep, informed inquiries about accessibility when procuring new software. Simultaneously, we prioritized 40 existing software solutions we use for developers, human resources, design, and accounting to work with the vendors to make them more accessible.
We are also working to extend our influence to push these vendors to make their software accessible for their other customers, as well. Every time VMware works with a vendor to improve accessibility for our own employees, we make sure those same improvements are made available to everyone who uses that solution. When we find software makers reluctant, we tell them that VMware will not renew our software licenses if they don’t make the specified changes.
The biggest reason we find vendors hesitant is the perceived cost. Changing software or adding features sometimes requires them to hire more people and contractors. Depending on the size of the company and our software contract, this may present a challenge. But we see it as an investment in the vendor’s future since the impact goes beyond VMware. We may be the first customer to bring the software developer’s attention to the accessibility issues in their products, but we will not be the only customer struggling with these problems.
The good news is that most of the time, we find that most software makers are already making their solutions more accessible or are at least willing to address our concerns. After all, getting a push from a customer the size of VMware can be very compelling.
The future of this effort looks bright. We have already met with about 20 vendors who have started the process of making their software more accessible. Some features, such as the new Direct Message Announcements for Slack screen-reader users, get released quickly to the entire world. We are learning what works, as far as motivating them to make changes and how to address the concerns. We plan to expand the program and make sure all the systems, software, and tools our employees use are accessible for everyone.
This effort is tremendously important to us. Innovation isn’t always about looking into the future and creating the next shiny object or must-have gadget. Sometimes, it means looking at the tools right in front of us and making them more inclusive.