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Greg Vargas Image
Greg Vargas
Vice President, Talent and DEI&I

Elevating disability-based diversity through ADA compliance: Next steps for your board

June 26, 2024
0 min read
Board members around a table discussing positive implications of ADA compliance

ADA compliance takes many forms in public life today: the parking spaces in front of buildings, the wheelchair-friendly ramps leading up to them, accommodations like service animals and American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, the list goes on. It’s all part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enabled to protect people with disabilities from discrimination.

The ADA has been law since 1990, spurring many positive developments since then. However, much work remains toward full representation and inclusion for people with disabilities, particularly in the boardroom.

Here are a few illustrative statistics. Currently, 1.3 billion people in the world — roughly 16 percent of the planet’s population — have a disability. Yet only 7% of directors identify as disabled, according to a recent survey by Disability:IN. Looking to the future, only 7% even mention disability in their documentation for the nomination of new directors.

Disability:IN CEO Jill Houghton refers to disability as “the forgotten D in diversity.” In 2021, Nasdaq enacted a ruling requiring all U.S. listed companies to work towards having more diverse board candidates. This important ruling covered women, unrepresented minorities and LGBTQ individuals. Who was left out? People with disabilities.

Making disability a priority in diversity efforts is the right thing to do — and it’s good for governance.

“Boards govern more effectively when members bring diverse abilities and perspectives to the table,” points out Ted Kennedy, Jr., co-chair of the Disability Equality Index and board member of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

How can your board be a leader in this area and benefit from these richer perspectives? Being aware and accommodating is an important step, and this starts with ADA compliance.

What does ADA compliance mean for corporate boards?

Corporate boards play a crucial role in ensuring ADA compliance across all levels of an organization. They are responsible for setting the tone at the top, influencing corporate culture, and ensuring that policies not only comply with the ADA but also embrace the spirit of inclusivity.

ADA compliance covers many things: employment practices, accessibility, accommodations and more. The Department of Justice enforces the Act through lawsuits and settlement agreements. In cases showing probable cause of a violation, discrimination investigations by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) can result in substantial fees — $125 million in damages for global retailer Walmart in a 2021 case in which a jury found the plaintiff was wrongly terminated, due to Walmart's refusal to accommodate an employee’s scheduling needs after a new system was implemented.

This example illustrates that boards must be proactive in understanding the potential legal, financial, and reputational implications of non-compliance and ensure that management enforces appropriate measures to accommodate employees with disabilities. By prioritizing ADA compliance, boards can help protect their companies from costly legal battles, enhance their reputation and create a more inclusive and equitable workplace. This strategic focus is essential not only for legal compliance but also for fostering a diverse and dynamic workforce that can drive the company forward.

Does your organization need to comply?

If you're wondering whether your organization needs to comply with the ADA, the answer is likely yes if you serve the public. The ADA is designed to ensure that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to enjoy employment opportunities, purchase goods and services and participate in state and local government programs.

Under Title III of the ADA, any business that provides goods or services to the public is required to comply. This includes a wide range of entities but essentially, if your organization interacts with the public, it falls under the ADA's requirements.

For more detailed information about ADA compliance and to understand the specific requirements that may apply to your organization, visit the official website.

The important role of ADA compliance in the boardroom

Because your board steers strategy and risk management for your organization’s operations, your actions related to disability inclusion and ADA compliance are critical. You set the tone from the top on this issue, with a ripple effect that extends throughout your organization’s operations and culture.

Effective navigation of these ripples matters. Above and beyond the substantial penalties and reputational damage of getting ADA compliance wrong, there’s a business cost as well. Research demonstrates that people want to do business with companies with an inclusive approach to disability.

In practice, ADA compliance involves making board meetings accessible and inclusive. This means maintaining options for virtual participation, ensuring physical meeting spaces comply with ADA standards and adapting materials and presentations to meet various needs.

Running a more accessible board meeting

Becoming a board that prioritizes accessibility for individuals with disabilities begins with how you meet. Accessible, inclusive board meetings with an atmosphere of collaboration and belonging is the goal. Below are a few suggestions on how to achieve it:

Video conferencing applications and other tools for virtual gatherings vastly expand meeting access and participation, so keep these options available. When you do host meetings onsite:

  • Check the facility for ADA compliance, such as accessible design and parking spaces
  • Make sure the facility’s design is friendly to any adaptive devices your board members may use, such as wheelchairs and mobility scooters, and allows service animals
  • Schedule frequent breaks — especially for long meetings

For meeting materials and presentations:

  • Send copies of the meeting agenda and materials to participants in advance
  • To accommodate participants with low vision, use bigger fonts, high-contrast colors and cleaner design in PowerPoint presentations
  • To accommodate lip readers, make sure presenters’ facial expressions are clearly visible to virtual and in-person meeting participants
  • Include captions in videos to accommodate people with hearing disabilities

For websites, intranets and other information-sharing portals used by your board, following Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the Section 508 standards used by the federal government can help you achieve ADA compliance online.

When presenting digital information, ADA compliance involves:

  • Accurate, meaningful “alt text” descriptions for any charts, graphs and pictures
  • Making sure all elements have their role, purpose, state and available action correctly announced by the screen reader, with accessible feedback provided after a user action
  • Clearly defined headings that match the site’s visuals and properly structured forms and visual tables
  • The ability to navigate through all elements on the screen using a keyboard, to accommodate people who aren’t able to use a mouse or trackpad
  • Making sure all functions can be completed by tab, space, enter and/or arrow keys
  • Posting PDF documents in text-based or HTML formats as well to accommodate screen readers and other adaptive technologies

ADA compliance is one part of an ongoing commitment

These tips above are a good place to get started for making your board meetings more accessible and welcoming for members and other attendees with disabilities. But they’re just the beginning of elevating disability as a form of diversity. For overall board operations:

  • Integrate disability accommodation into your board’s nominating charter
  • Make disability a voluntary category for self-reporting board member demographics
  • Include disability training into ongoing board member education
  • Make it a priority to use vendors that provide ADA-compliant products or services

Finally, remember that ADA compliance is not a black-and-white issue. A grey area exists within the law that is subject to legal interpretation. Your organization’s legal and/or compliance team will need to decide for themselves what it means to be acceptably compliant.

Diligent is hard at work helping boards across industries advance diversity and business outcomes through solutions that prioritize ADA compliance. Learn more about Diligent Boards — and schedule a demo today.

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