Failure to ensure your company is accessible to people with disabilities can affect your talent pool and your bottom line, warned Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer, during a panel on Accessibility Insights at the IICF Inclusion in Insurance Forum in June.

Lay-Flurrie, who is deaf, said that accessibility is a factor whether she’s choosing a workplace or an insurer. “If people won’t help me to be successful, I don’t want to work with them—or give them my money. You’re missing out on an enormous amount of potential revenue, let alone talent,” if you don’t invest in being accessible.

Diversity, equity and inclusion programs generally focus on race, gender, the LGBTQ+ community—but they often leave out people with disabilities. Lay-Flurrie believes this is because “people don’t necessarily always feel safe to bring their disability [to work] and talk about it in the same way as other areas of diversity, and I think that’s why there hasn’t been a fair shot.”

She said her team at Microsoft is “challenging the notion and societal stereotypes of disability. We see disability as a strength and a talent and an expertise that’s incredibly important if not essential to the company…to help us build better products and experiences that work for the more than one billion people with disabilities around the world.”

“If people won’t help me to be successful, I don’t want to work with them—or give them my money. You’re missing out on an enormous amount of potential revenue, let alone talent.”

Employee Accessibility

Lay-Flurrie noted that the “majority of disability is non-apparent. It’s not something you can see,” citing examples such as mental health issues, dyslexia and autism.

Many companies may not even realize they have employees with disabilities, she said—but the odds are that they do. “If you have a team over the size of four or five, someone on your team will have a disability. But if they haven’t told you, that means that your culture may not be at the point where they feel safe to do so.”

She said that one simple thing people can do is to talk openly about disability in the workplace. She suggested using Microsoft’s “Accessibility Fundamentals” to learn about the proper language and etiquette for these discussions, or just follow the individual’s preference.

“Often people stumble because they don’t know what words to use. Let us teach you what words to use…Listen to how people talk to it themselves,” she said—for example, using the term “people with disabilities” vs. “disabled.”

It’s important to “bring [disability] into the room, bring it into your team, bring it into your company and talk about. If you have a lived experience with disability—yourself or a family member—share that. Talk about that. Advocate for yourself and advocate for upping the bar of accommodations that are accessible and usable by everyone.”

Lay-Flurrie noted that “the employment gap for people with disabilities is double that for people without. And often it’s because people don’t feel that they can come in and self-identify and can ask for what they need to be successful.”

“Most of these accommodations [are] very quick, very simple, very low cost,” she said. “But they empower someone to achieve way more than without it. And you’ll get a loyal, incredible, productive, efficient [employee] bringing their magic to everything that they do.”

Customer Accessibility

Lay-Flurrie said that companies need to provide customers with multiple contact options, so they can access support through their vehicle of choice.

“I clearly have a great insurance provider,” she said, but “I’ve never spoken to them because I don’t use voice. And I will tell you that I have moved away from insurance providers because they wouldn’t work with me over email or text.”

“I don’t use the phone,” she added. “Why would I use the phone? My ears don’t work. And I’m not going to work with somebody else to make my phone call. I often get, ‘Well, can somebody else do the phone call for you?’ No. I am an empowered female…Why should I have to do that? You fix your systems.”

“If your website [or document] is not accessible, fix it. Because even though somebody may not have complained to you right now…They will have gone to a competitor.”

She noted that her team at Microsoft offers phone, email, chat, video sign language—so that “whether you’re blind, you’re deaf, whatever disability you have, there’s a vehicle by which you can contact us. And not worry about how to contact us, but let’s talk about what help you need.”

Companies also need to ensure that their websites and emails are accessible, Lay-Flurrie said.

“Every document that you send, that you share—whether you know that you have a person with a disability who’s going to read it or not—should be inclusive,” she stressed. “Would you ever want to receive a message from one of your employees or one of your customers that said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t read your document; I am blind.’ And the position you’re putting that person in, to have to send that note.”

She said it’s important to make sure that any pictures or charts have full descriptions under alternative text for those with vision problems and that all videos are closed captioned. She also recommends running documents through an accessibility checker and using to check websites.

“If your website [or document] is not accessible, fix it,” she said. “Because even though somebody may not have complained to you right now—they may not have complained, but they will have gone to somebody who will have an accessible document, who will have an accessible website…They will have gone to a competitor.”

Accessibility by Design

Lay-Flurrie warned companies not to wait until they’re ready to go live to make sure their websites and digital products are inclusive and accessible. Accessibility needs to be embedded in the blueprint.

“It’s way easier, cheaper in terms of time and money, to fix it and get it as part of your blueprint architecture,” she said. “If you’re doing it at the end, you may find that people with disabilities are not able to use your digital presence. And in order to fix that it can be up to 100 percent of the cost—if not more.”

She said that it’s just “common sense to do it at the beginning and don’t deal with the PR backlash, the poor experience, the potential legal misery that can come from putting out an inaccessible environment that you then have to fix. Don’t do that”

“And if you don’t know if it’s accessible, it’s not,” she added. “It’s not something where there’s gray…If you don’t know if it’s accessible or it’s not on your radar, it’s not.”