8 Steps to Building an ADA-Compliant Workplace – Physical and Digital Worlds

Learn how to use this guideline to make your workplace more accessible for your employees - both physically and digitally.

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a step towards building a diverse and inclusive community without discrimination based on disability. Not only is disability discrimination prohibited in state and local government services, ADA also guarantees equal opportunity and accessibility for disabled people when it comes to employment. Though this law had been in practice for more than two decades, employment rates for people with disability are still very low where only four in ten working adults with disabilities are employed.

Businesses may be hesitant to hire people with disabilities because they must start designing an all-inclusive work environment that abides by the strict regulations of ADA. Physical workplaces must be retrofitted for improved accessibility. And since technology is the lifeline of most modern workplaces, digital workplace accessibility is equally important too. But by taking a holistic, transformative approach to accessibility, companies benefit from additional skills brought in by the untapped talent pool – people with disabilities. Additionally, when businesses make their workplace ADA compliant, they avoid lawsuits stemming from discriminatory workplace practices. In fact, they have a better chance at becoming an advocate for diversity and inclusion.

In today’s blog post, we’ll discuss the eight steps that you need to take to make your workplace – both in the physical and digital realms – more accessible to employees.

8-Step Guide to Building an ADA-Compliant Workplace

An inclusive culture fosters goodwill and productivity among staff, and even stronger connection with customers. But building an ADA-compliant workplace can be daunting, especially when you consider the technicalities. That’s why we’ve prepared this 8-Step Guide to Building an ADA-Compliant Workplace. This actionable guide is adapted from Website Accessibility Conformance Evaluation Methodology (WCAG-EM) set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

This guide requires continuous reiteration to successfully achieve accessibility conformance as per ADA standards. All that and more right below.

Step 1: Define the evaluation scope

Before you can dive into an accessibility assessment, you must know what it is that you’re assessing. This first step helps you with that.

Initial evaluation of the workplace is necessary to get an overall feel of the current accessibility features available. From there, you can define the level of accessibility conformance that you’re targeting. This helps to verify if your efforts at making your workplace ADA compliant are fruitful. Let’s see how this step plays out in physical and digital workplaces:

Physical Workplace

To make your physical workplace ADA compliant, your evaluation scope should entail the following components:

  • Parking areas
  • Entrances and exits
  • Doorways and hallways
  • Lifts and stairways
  • Personal office space (desks and tables)
  • Restrooms
  • Signage

Walk around your facility and identify the current state of the components above. Next, familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations of ADA so that it’s easier for you to identify what components need remediation.

Digital Workplace

As for the digital workplace, the components that form the evaluation scope and must be made accessible are:

  • Software applications and operating systems
  • Web-based intranet and internet information and applications
  • Telecommunications products
  • Video and multimedia products
  • Self-contained, closed products
  • Desktop and portable computers

Although these components are part of Section 508 Standards that govern the accessibility of electronic and information technology procured by the federal government, they can still be used by private companies. Once you’ve identified the scope, define the WCAG conformance level (“A”, “AA”, or “AAA”) that you’re targeting as your benchmark to successfully meet the accessibility needs of different groups.

Step 2: Explore the evaluation scope

After scope preparation comes exploration. In this step, investigate the scope to gauge the functionalities and the overall level of accessibility in your workplace. This helps you to identify the areas that need an in-depth accessibility audit later on.

Physical Workplace

Back in the days, building features like narrow doors, round door knobs, or steps right at the entrance were in style. Unfortunately, these older infrastructure features are now barriers to people with disabilities. So, explore physical components in detail and analyze how they’re hindering the movement of disabled people. Perhaps the doors are too narrow for people on mobility devices to enter? Or maybe there isn’t a ramp at the entrance? Do the elevators have braille buttons for people with visual impairments? Knowing these details – however small they may be – will guide you to make your workplace accessible to everyone.

Digital Workplace

As for your digital workplace, explore it to understand the uses, interactive features, functionalities, and accessibility of the components. For example, if you’re reviewing the company’s official website, identify its relevant web pages such as the homepage and login page, and the essential functionalities that users can perform like registering a user account or submitting a job application. Also determine the types of technologies like Flash and JavaScript needed to make the digital workplace accessible. Additionally, evaluate internal tools like your intranet to ensure that all employees have equal opportunities to collaborate and contribute to your innovation efforts. Key areas of consideration include support for screen readers, keyboard navigation, and other assistive technologies.

Step 3: Select a representative sample

With the findings from the previous step, select a representative sample that once audited will produce an accurate accessibility rating of the workplace. If it’s practical for you to audit the entire workplace, it’s highly recommended that you do so. Otherwise, choosing a structured sample and another random sample for an accessibility audit would suffice.

Physical Workplace

When it comes to the physical workplace, understand the types of users who are using the spaces and how. For example, is the conference room also a makeshift lunch room for your employees? Do you also use it as a waiting room for visitors? Knowing this is important as it determines if your physical workplace complies with Title I or Title III of the ADA. Next, include spaces that are commonly frequented by your staff and/or visitors in your representative sample.

Digital Workplace

Choose from different components to give a concise picture of your digital workplace accessibility. For instance, different web pages can provide a good accessibility overview of the functionalities and technologies used in the digital world. With a careful selection of the audit sample and inclusion of random digital components, you can even minimize the effort needed for the audit while still maintaining an appropriate accessibility representation of the digital office.

Step 4: Audit the representative sample

Audit your representative sample against the standard to know if your workplace is accessible for people with disabilities. You can either ask your own staff or a third-party auditor to perform an accessibility evaluation. The chosen auditor must be experienced with accessibility standards and audits.

Physical Workplace

When it comes to physical accessibility, many states (at least in the US) are built according to building codes other than the ADA standards. For example, Washington refers to the International Building Code (IBC) to design its infrastructure while Oregon uses Oregon Structural Specialty Code. When auditing your own office suite, refer to the code that your building uses; this becomes the audit baseline. If the accessibility features are inadequate based on the existing code, update them based on ADA standards.

Digital Workplace

Audit your digital workplace components to determine if they successfully meet the WCAG requirements at the target conformance level. To check for accessibility compliance, use multiple verification tests such as:

  • Human checks
  • Assistive technology and tools used by disabled people (e.g. Dragon Naturally Speaking, ZoomText, and JAWs)
  • Checking color contrast and keyboard navigation

With the audit results, you can then implement changes.

Step 5: Report your audit findings

But before that, document the audit findings (and all the steps involved) for a transparent and actionable ADA-compliance process. Also list out recommendations and the priority on how to fix the accessibility issues for seamless workplace modifications.

Physical Workplace

Create a list of repairs necessary to make your office ADA compliant. Since it may be impractical to upgrade all features at once, prioritize them based on the severity of issues. Some issues like the absence of handrails can easily land your business in a lawsuit. So, develop a plan to correct these major issues first before moving on to minor ones.

Digital Workplace

In the audit report, state if the evaluation scope meets the conformance requirement according to the success criteria. If possible, include at least an example for each conformance requirement for clarity and guidance during change implementation later on. Maybe the job portal that your employees are using lacks color contrast. Report identified accessibility issues, their causes, and appropriate suggestions for improvements.

Step 6: Fix the accessibility issues

Now, this is where the corrective actions happen. Fix the accessibility issues based on their order of priority stated in the audit report. You may need the expertise of third-party ADA-compliance consultants to adequately remedy the issues.

Physical Workplace

For improved efficiency, engage accessibility consultants that not only conduct physical audits, but also provide ADA-compliant infrastructure renovations. Share with them the audit findings so they’ll know which areas require immediate improvements. Make sure they implement the minimum accessibility elements in each component:

  • Parking areas: The general rule is to create one handicapped parking space for every 25 or fewer parking spots with clearly bordered access aisles. This space must also be clearly marked with the international symbol of accessibility.
  • Entrances and exits: Start by removing any stairs at the entrances and exits and install shallow ramps that are 36 inches wide instead.
  • Doorways and hallways: Doors and hallways must also be at least 36 inches wide. Any doors that require more than 5 pounds of force to open must be updated to include electronic button or a doorman.
  • Lifts and stairways: Contrary to popular beliefs, stair lifts are not ADA compliant; but platform lifts are. The platform lifts must always allow unaided entry, operation, and exit from the lifts.
  • Personal office space (desks and tables): Desks must provide at least 27 inches of knee clearance.
  • Restrooms: Install restrooms with hand rails to the side and behind the stalls. Mount the handrails between 33 to 36 inches above the floor.
  • Signage: While wall-mounted signs must be at least 27 inches from the floor, hanging overhead ones must be 80 inches above the floor. The characters on the signs must contrast with their backgrounds.
Digital Workplace

Based on the guidelines set by WCAG 2.0 AA, for your websites and other digital workplace components to be accessible, they must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. So, choose experienced accessibility experts who can offer in-depth scans, practical improvements, and continuous support.

In cases where third-party products that make up your digital workplace don’t meet all WCAG requirements, make a claim of partial conformance. Let’s take Confluence as an example. Though it’s one of the widely used wiki platforms, Confluence is still inaccessible for people with visual, hearing, and motor impairments. This is where claim of partial conformance comes into play.

But don’t just let those digital components only partially conform to accessibility requirements. Leverage assistive applications where possible and transform your digital workplace to be more inclusive. Back to our Confluence scenario. Do you know there’s an app – Accessibility for Confluence – that can instantly transform your intranet portal to be more accessible? With accessibility features like high-contrast mode, screen reader support, and keyboard navigation, your organization can benefit from a truly inclusive digital workplace culture.

Step 7: Perform quality assurance testing 

To ensure that the changes applied are indeed practical and fully work to enhance accessibility features, perform complete quality assurance testing. With the findings, fine-tune and verify your accessibility feature improvements.

Physical Workplace

Remember the standards, building codes, and audit report we discussed earlier? Following infrastructure renovations, review the changes against these baseline documents to ensure that your office now complies with appropriate accessibility standards. Take it up a notch and consider people’s opinions too. If you have employees who need these accessibility features, they’re the right people to fine-tune these improvements.

Digital Workplace

The same goes to digital workplace modifications. First, ensure that the accessibility changes made conform with the standards and requirements. Next, use available QA plugins like Google Lighthouse, axe, and WAVE to evaluate the improved accessibility features. And then invite your staff to use the digital components to ascertain if the improvements made are successful.

Step 8: Maintain and update accessibility features

Making sure that your workplace – both physical and digital – is accessible must be a reiterative process. Ensure all improvements made are in good condition and can continuously meet accessibility standards. As part of ADA maintenance, establish policies, procedures, and best practices. Most importantly, conduct a company-wide training for your team to understand the importance of alterations made and how they can help to make the workplace more accessible. For instance, educate them to always leave hallways free from obstructions like boxes and chairs.

Establish ADA Compliance for an Inclusive Workplace

Taking the first step towards building an ADA-compliant workplace can be challenging. But the end result is inclusive and productive workplace operations – a win-win situation for you and your employees.

If you find improving the ADA compliance of your physical workplace too much work, start small with your digital workplace instead.

Leverage Accessibility for Confluence for free for 30 days and create a barrier-free digital work environment for your colleagues with disabilities.

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