Reimagining mobility at work

Rob Rusch Tax Director, PwC US October 30, 2020

The oldest building in Edinburgh, Scotland is a 12th century chapel inside the walls of a castle. As an English major and wheelchair user studying abroad in Edinburgh, that castle was unexpectedly also one of the most accessible buildings in the city; the roads and gates were all built to be used by carts and carriages.

I remember frequently encountering accessibility hurdles in Edinburgh. The most common hurdle was door handles at chest height. These doors were impossible for me to enter without assistance as my neuromuscular disability makes it very difficult to raise my arms, and being in a wheelchair places me much lower to the ground. This obstacle was surprising and peculiar to me since doors in the United States are required to have waist-high handles under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Only one door I encountered in Edinburgh had a waist-high door handle. That handle was large, covered with blue rubber, and the door had a square-foot sized handicap symbol on it to indicate it was for wheelchair users.

During October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I often find myself reflecting on my experience in Edinburgh. While my experience was difficult, it taught me an important lesson about reimagining the possible. Creating a door sounds like a singular solution to a singular problem. Yet through my experience, I have realized various solutions to the same problem often yield vastly different results. Case in point: putting a handle on a door is a solution. But lowering that handle by six inches provides a differentiated — and more inclusive — solution. Coming off my tour as a PwC Digital Accelerator, this has been a story I’ve shared frequently with my team and fellow innovators to encourage them to think differently about finding solutions.

The same thinking can be applied to finding solutions to inclusion in the workplace.

It all starts with storytelling. It’s a powerful tool for boosting inclusivity and breaking down the implicit biases around disability. Few things are more powerful than hearing someone else’s point of view — about their unique experiences, talents, and challenges. Navigation and fitting in, for example, is a very relatable story for people with disabilities, but also for almost everyone — from immigrants to other diverse groups to anyone that’s been through middle school. That storytelling gives everyone a conversation to start with and bond over. We all have different challenges that influence our path to success — in whatever form we personally define them. By hearing and sharing stories, we help strengthen empathy and open minds to new perspectives.

As a Tax Director at PwC, I have benefited from working with an organization that empowers me to share my story. Through the opportunities I’ve received over the years, the firm has demonstrated it truly believes in what I can do instead of focusing on what I can’t. PwC sees the value in my unique experiences and ability to think outside the box.

Unfortunately, most people with a disability are not given that opportunity. In America, the unemployment rate of individuals with disabilities is twice that of people without disabilities (BLS 2019). Companies may miss out on huge pools of talent with innovative ideas and skills by not employing a more diverse workforce.

For many professionals with disabilities in the workplace, a major hurdle is transportation. Back when we were working in the office and at client sites, it might have been difficult to get from my house to the office if I didn’t have an incredible support system. By simply offering easy transportation or even more flexible office situations, companies can attract and retain new pools of talent.

Transportation is just one element of accessibility. As I experienced back in Scotland, building design can present substantial opportunities for accessibility as well. Wide doors, ramps instead of steps, accessible restrooms, and assistive technologies are all key to creating an equitable experience for individuals with disabilities.

One example of work PwC has done recently to help create equitable experiences for all through accessibility is our work with AXS Maps. AXS Maps (part of AXS Labs) is a crowdsourcing platform powered by Google Maps and AWS, and backed by web app users who rate the accessibility of locations like train stations, grocery stores, restaurants, and coffee shops. Through crowdsourcing, AXS Map’s goal is to provide better accessibility — more places for more people. PwC’s digital team worked with AXS Labs to put people with disabilities at the heart of design and help transform the platform into a more user-friendly web app for a wider range of people with disabilities worldwide. We’re even going one step further as a firm to encourage our employees to help review locations in their communities through our Skills for Society program.

The current crisis we are living through provides an excellent opportunity to reflect during this National Disability Employment Awareness Month. How have you had to face challenges differently over the last six months? How can we each operate with empathy to build better solutions for all? I encourage everyone reading this to embrace the impact they have on others and identify one way you can move a door handle a few inches and create positive change in the life of a client, peer, friend, or family member.