Lainey Feingold, Disability Rights Attorney, shares how HR professionals can work toward real inclusion while involving people with disabilities in every step and avoiding quick-fix pitfalls.
Intro: [00:00:00.99] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools, and case studies for the business leader HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:27.06] Welcome to the Workology Podcast sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR exam. This episode you’re listening to right now is part of the Workology Podcast, and it’s part of our Future of Work series, which is powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT works to start conversations around how emerging workplace technology trends are impacting people with disabilities. Today, I’m joined by Lainey Feingold. She’s a disability rights lawyer and author of Structured Negotiation: A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits. Lainey helped negotiate the first web accessibility agreement in the United States in 2000. She works with the disability community and public and private organizations on accessible information and technology, and that includes web, mobile apps, kiosks, and other digital accessibility issues. She also serves as the digital accessibility resource for Disability:IN, a global B2B disability inclusion nonprofit organization. Lainey has pioneered structured negotiation, an alternative dispute resolution process that achieves win-win solutions to legal claims without going to court and even once a case is filed. She has been named a Legal Rebel and Problem Solver of the Year by the American Bar Association and has been selected twice as a California Lawyer Attorney of the Year for her digital and structured negotiation work. Lainey, welcome to the Workology Podcast.
Lainey Feingold: [00:02:01.59] Glad to be here! Thanks for having me.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:04.20] I love that you’re a legal rebel. I love that so much.
Lainey Feingold: [00:02:09.28] You know, I don’t usually put things like that in the intro or my resume, but everyone likes to hear, “oh, legal rebel.” And I usually like to say it shouldn’t be rebellious to be advocating for inclusion in a collaborative way. Nonetheless, here we are.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:29.03] Let’s talk a little bit more about your background and how you got involved in accessibility.
Lainey Feingold: [00:02:34.76] I got lucky. I think that’s the only way to put it. I was fired from a job. I was looking around, this was about 25 years ago, almost 30 years ago, and I landed at a disability rights nonprofit, and while I was there, blind people came into the organization and said, “there’s not a single ATM in the whole United States we can use. Do you think the law could help us?” And the Americans with Disabilities Act was only five years old, and we said, “let’s give it a try.” But instead of suing, we wrote letters to the banks and said we’d like to work with you and collaborate on ATMs that work for blind people, which are ATMs that talk. And we did that, and it was great, and the bankers and their customers got to know each other. Towards the end of that, one of our blind customers said to us, “you know, it’s great we got talking ATMs. But there’s this new thing on the horizon called online banking.” And it was new. It was new to me, but I listen to my clients, and we went to Bank of America and said, you know, there’s online banking and it really needs to work for blind people. And Bank of America said yes. And that was how I got started in working on accessibility issues.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:52.21] What an amazing story and the impact that you, the work that you’ve done for, for millions of people who, who don’t even know this back story.
Lainey Feingold: [00:04:04.03] Yeah, that’s one good thing. You mentioned my book in the intro. It’s one good thing about writing a book. It causes you to go back and see, like, how did this happen and what are the stories? And, you know, I said that my career started because of luck, and I landed in disability rights, but it also started because I had the opportunity to work with blind people and because we use this collaborative process, they had a very big role in everything that I’ve worked on since that time.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:33.19] Let’s talk a little bit about accessibility and really what does that mean to you?
Lainey Feingold: [00:04:39.04] I would say in one word, to me, accessibility is about inclusion. Accessibility is the quality of technology and of content that makes it available to people with disabilities. And accessibility depends on understanding that all of us use technology in different ways. Some of us can see a screen and some of us can’t see a screen. Some of us can listen to video. Other people can’t hear video, so they need captions or sign language. So, accessibility is the bridge really between people with disabilities and the content and the technology, the software. I know your audience has a lot of HR professionals in it, so all the workplace technology tools and all the disabled people that want to be hired and that you want to hire, accessibility is that bridge that makes the technology and content accessible. Makes it usable.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:43.25] Can you share an example of an accessibility lawsuit or a case that has or is directly impacting HR?
Lainey Feingold: [00:05:52.22] Yeah, there was very recently at the end of December, there was a settlement announced between ADP and the San Francisco Lighthouse for the blind and visually impaired. And the case
was about the ability of employees at the Lighthouse to use ADP’s workplace payroll tools and software. And it was filed as a lawsuit, but then the parties pivoted to Structured Negotiation so they could collaborate on a solution. And they did have a solution, and they reached a settlement agreement. And in the agreement, ADP made a really great commitment to making sure that its tools were available to blind people, and they did a joint press release about the settlement. And it’s really beautiful to read because ADP, because there was collaboration and because real people were involved, ADP creates software so employees can use it. And like so many of the things I’ve worked on, once an issue is brought to people’s attention, “oh, blind people can’t use this software,” then ADP wanted to do the right thing and did the right thing. And the press release, they said that they really saw this as part of their diversity and inclusion initiative. Another big piece of accessibility is privacy. So, people in HR know that so much of what goes on in the workplace needs to be private when people have access to their health information or their payroll stubs or everything, we get from technology now. If the technology is not accessible, people with disabilities can’t independently access it. They have to ask for help, and that breaks the hard work of privacy and security that technology goes for. So, accessibility and privacy really are hand in hand.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:53.70] I don’t know if I’ve ever really thought about it that way, about the privacy component, but you’re, you’re absolutely right and as HR leaders, privacy is something that is so important in so much of the work that we do.
Lainey Feingold: [00:08:09.81] This is why I always try to mention the privacy aspect because digital accessibility fits into so many things that industry and leadership is already doing and committed to. It fits into privacy, it fits into independence, it fits into diversity and inclusion because there’s a woeful gap in percentage of disabled people hired versus non-disabled people. And accessibility creates the tools for HR to be able to meet their mission of making sure more people with disabilities get hired so accessibility isn’t out there as its own thing. It’s integral to all the policies and commitments that I think we already all have.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:01.95] Your signature structured negotiation technique, which we’ve been talking about, is well known for helping people with disabilities meet with organizational leaders and staff in ways that spark inclusive culture shifts rather than short-term monetary gains. Can you tell us a little bit more about why this works?
Lainey Feingold: [00:09:22.60] That is a great question, and I have been doing the practice since the mid-90s, so I know what it is. I know that we write a letter instead of filing a lawsuit. I know that we have meetings instead of having fights. But why it works is something I really focused on as I was writing my book. And I really think the number one reason it works is because it brings people with disabilities into real conversation with business leaders, government leaders. Too often in the traditional legal system, it’s all about lawyers talking to each other. Or it’s all about lawyers writing letters to each other or convincing a judge of something. But in structured negotiation, which I always say is born at the intersection of technology and disability and dispute resolution, we really bring together the people with the problem and the people who can solve the problem. So just one little example, I worked with blind baseball fans who needed access to Major League Baseball’s website, and they had been having a really hard time getting the attention of Major League Baseball. But when we used structured negotiation, we set up a phone call. This was, you know, well pre-COVID, but we still did it by phone. And the MLB decision-makers met the blind baseball fans. It was like a match in heaven because they hadn’t really thought about, “oh, can blind people look up the statistics for their favorite players? Can blind people listen to a game and change the channel or change the volume when they’re listening online?” These are all parts of what makes things accessible and in structured negotiation, because we have real conversation and build real relationships, have trust, have transparency, I think that’s really why it works.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:11:28.37] I wish more people would do this, you know, outside of not just the work that you’re involved in and in the disability community, but just workplace conversations or in our everyday lives.
Lainey Feingold: [00:11:45.53] You know, yeah, thank you for saying that. As I said, I do a lot of work with Disability:IN which is a non-profit that has corporate leaders as partners. And one of the things I often do is talk about when you’re internal, when you’re an internal champion, how can you convince people to do more of what you want them to do? So here we’re talking about, make sure your HR tools are accessible. And a lot of these strategies from structured negotiation can be used by people outside of a lawsuit, outside of a dispute, just as a way of being open-minded and, I’ll go so far as to say open-hearted and having conversations that bring results. I mean, one other thing I realized in writing the book about why this works is so many times people don’t do things because of fear. All of us, you know, we’re afraid. If we do this, then maybe there’ll be a legal problem. But we’re afraid, if we say this, we might say the wrong thing and offend someone. This happens all the time in the context of disability issues. And so, a process like structured negotiation that really encourages listening and not making assumptions can really bring about change. That’s what I’ve seen.
Break: [00:13:04.04] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you are listening to the Workology Podcast sponsored by Ace The HR Exam and Upskill HR. Today, we’re talking with Lainey Feingold about disability rights and accessibility. This podcast is part of our Future of Work series powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology.
Intro: [00:13:26.71] The Workology Podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at PEATWorks.org. That’s PEATWorks.org.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:55.96] One hot topic in digital accessibility is Web overlays that claim to make websites ADA compliant. Can you tell us about what these overlays are and how they can actually create accessibility barriers?
Lainey Feingold: [00:14:13.45] Well, you’re certainly right. It’s a hot topic. And if you search on Google or your favorite search engine for accessibility, the very first thing that usually comes up is advertisements for companies that are selling these overlays, which are basically, when we’re talking about them in this context, one line of code that sits on top of a website and tries to fix things as they come up. Well, I want to say right here that if there was artificial intelligence that could do that, I would be the first to sign up. That would be great. But it doesn’t work and the technology does not deliver. Unfortunately, many of these companies are selling full ADA compliance, quote-unquote. And so unsuspecting site owners or businesses say, “Oh wow, we could just license this product for X dollars a month and be done with our accessibility issues.” But the truth is that accessibility does take effort. So many of these companies advertise no effort. No, no commitment. I don’t say no commitment, but no effort. But accessibility does take effort. There’s design work, there’s coding, there’s training. There’s so many elements that go into the big picture of inclusion when it comes to technology. So, I have been an advocate of really educating people around the limitations of these overlays.
Lainey Feingold: [00:15:52.25] You mentioned, do they create barriers? In the show notes, you will see a link to the overlay factsheet. And, in that resource, which is a gathering of media stories and research and statements by people about these overlays, there’s a section, I think it’s called In Their Own, In Their Own Words, and they have quotes from people with disabilities, especially blind people, who have been faced with websites that have the overlay. They go to the website and it’s harder to navigate. It’s harder to navigate. For those of you listening who don’t know, blind people can navigate websites and read content by software on their computers that will provide navigation cues and read things out loud and do it all audibly. And that’s called a screen reader. And screen reader software can encounter barriers by websites that have these overlays on them. So, it’s a combination of the, of the, really the false advertising about what these, what the software can do and the fact that barriers are actually created that makes them a matter of very serious concern for all of us, including your listeners who want to get it right and really want an inclusive environment.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:16.22] Well, thank you for sharing because I think that we just don’t know what we don’t know. So, somebody says, hey, I found this resource, or I googled this, and this is supposed to make my website or my career site or whatever more accessible. It sounds like, hey, that’s, I want to be more accessible, but thank you for alerting us to the fact that just because it says that it’s supposed to do the thing, it doesn’t mean it always does the thing.
Lainey Feingold: [00:17:46.00] Well, you’re so right and in that overlay factsheet, which is OverlayFactsheet.com, there’s actually a statement signed by close to seven hundred people now, including myself, cautioning about this software and these tools. And yeah, people don’t know what they don’t know. And some of these overlay companies are fairly, very heavily funded. Some of them have received venture money and they spend a lot of money on marketing. And it, it’s really kind of heartbreaking for me, someone who’s been in this space for so long, to see organizations and individuals who want to do the right thing get sidetracked by this type of technology.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:28.55] And that’s exactly why you’re here talking to us today, so we can be informed, and we have resources to point people to so they can be more informed on this subject. I wanted to ask you also, in your experience, how can you persuade leaders within a company to find options beyond, and I’m using air quotes here, quick-fix solutions. I think they can be tempting, and they seem like the cost-effective path. How can our audience help their workplaces shift toward solutions that are more effective for everyone?
Lainey Feingold: [00:19:05.21] That’s a really good question, and it’s the $6 million question because it is tempting. I think the most, there’s many things, one of the many things is understanding accessibility as something about people. My understanding of the HR profession and the HR professionals I’ve met is that you’re all about serving people. People go into HR because you want to help people in the workforce, and accessibility somehow gets thought of as, Oh, it’s something just for developers or it’s something that’s just a legal requirement. But as often as we can remember, it’s about people using our tools, reading our content. Then we start remembering that we want real solutions that stick. So, I often use a metaphor of the accessibility cookie because first of all, cookies are delicious, but also because they have many, many ingredients. And I use the cookie as a metaphor because all of those ingredients are parts of your organization that need to have some focus on accessibility. HR is certainly an aspect of the cookie, certainly an aspect of the cookie, because recruitment and hiring and hiring tools and onboarding and training, all of the things you’re involved with, involves technology, which means you have to be involved with accessibility. Also, in the cookie is designing, is procurement, is the legal requirements. That’s a piece of it. I like to say the legal requirements are the salt. You need them, but you don’t want them driving your accessibility efforts because accessibility can be innovative.
Lainey Feingold: [00:20:57.72] It can be a motivator. It makes people feel good about the work they do. So, thinking about the accessibility cookie and involving real people with disabilities in your initiatives. We have a day in May called Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and I invite you to look up online what other companies do. It could be as simple as having a company-wide lunch and learn. It could be as simple as watching someone use your tools who can’t see a screen or who doesn’t use a mouse. I can invite all of you to give it a try yourself. Many, many people can’t use a mouse for various reasons. Accessibility means everything on your website you should be able to get to with your keyboard. So, I invite you to try it. Some companies have what they call mouseless Mondays. You could have a mouseless ten minutes and just say, “Hey, we’re all going to try this to better understand that not everybody uses technology the same way.” Structured negotiation strategies can help companies understand accessibility in a real way, so they’re not just looking for quick fixes. One thing I really think is important is celebrating successes and finding something small to do and doing it well and using your internal communication channels to let everyone know you did it. Those are all the kinds of things that can make the culture shift that’s really needed for true accessibility.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:39.27] Thank you, and I love the cookie reference. While you’re talking, my mind goes to, “Oh, Girl Scout cookies, I need to buy some. I don’t, must not forget,” but I digress. The other question I wanted to make sure that I asked. You mentioned vendors. We mentioned a vendor. There are so many choices out there for HR leaders as they’re evaluating vendors for HR and hiring software. Do you have any tips and how do we confirm that we’re bringing in technology that is accessible for people with disabilities?
Lainey Feingold: [00:23:16.87] That is a huge question and a huge issue and a critically important one. So, we call that area accessible procurement and at Disability:IN we have a toolkit. You can look it up online. It’s called the Accessible Procurement Toolkit from Disability:IN, it has lots and lots of ideas on how you can make sure what you’re bringing in is accessible. There’s a lot of parts to it, but I would say one place to start is talk to your vendors. Again, communication and relationship. And if you talk to a vendor and you say we want our technology to work for blind people, does yours? You know, not just a general question. It used to be you could say, “Oh, does your technology meet ADA?” Some would say yes and that would be the end of it, but we know from experience that we have to ask very specific questions. If any vendor says to you, “Oh yeah, it’s fine, we have a document that proves it.” You’ve got to dig deeper, you know? “Oh, did you test the technology? When did you do the test? What are the standards you used for testing?” So, a lot, a lot of questions. But I think starting, if you have people with disabilities in your workforce, I might have forgotten to say that one critical aspect of the cookie is inclusive hiring, because if the person in the next cubicle is deaf, it’s less likely that your organization is going to put out a video without captions. So inclusive hiring is really an important part of the cookie. It’s also a really important part, important part of accessible procurement. Bring the technology in. Have people play with it. If you don’t have anybody on staff and on your teams who can do it, there are non-profits you can work with. There are consultants who do this kind of work. Getting it on the radar, having an accessibility policy, really invite people to look at the Microsoft website. They have a whole toolkit for their vendors because they have a high expectation for accessibility. You don’t need to recreate the wheel.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:30.20] We’re asking all the hard questions in this podcast interview with you, like solving all, I mean, don’t take people’s word for it. The sales guy says, “Oh yeah, it’s accessible.” It’s not. Or you’ve got to be sure if they say it is, we have to do some further, further digging, more testing, research. Like you said, there’s a lot of different ways to be able to do that.
Lainey Feingold: [00:25:57.78] Or we could do a whole hour here on procurement. But if, you know, it’s a great question to drop into this conversation about accessibility and there are more resources out there and we’ll make sure somewhere in the show notes and people can always reach out to me for additional resources. The exciting thing for me, having been in the space for so long, is that large organizations are recognizing how important this is to procurement, and you’re seeing roles within procurement teams that are focused solely on making sure technology is accessible. Now, of course, in most organizations of small, medium, even large size, that might not be possible. But the basics of really getting the commitment, getting it in writing, having it a part of your contract, those can be done by anybody.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:26:48.29] We’ve talked about barriers to accessibility. Can you talk about some success cases? I’m a glass-half-full kind of gal. And, and what are some workplace digital accessibility boosters that our HR leaders can try out?
Lainey Feingold: [00:27:04.85] That’s a great question. I’ll just digress for a moment and say that Structured Negotiation also works because of a collaborative mindset. The one aspect of the collaborative mindset is optimism. So, I’m with you. You have to believe that it matters what you do along the way. You have to believe that the process is going to lead to the results that you want. So, I’m all with you. I’m, like I said, I’m a big believer in small steps and champions and successes. So, a couple of things is first of all knowledge. You don’t know what you need to do until you know where you’re at. And, you know, you could hire a company that can do a whole audit. And that might be of value. But you can also take one aspect of your HR process, take your application portal or take your social media recruitment content and see if that’s accessible. And if you don’t know or if your developer doesn’t know, then pretty much I can guarantee it isn’t accessible. Take off a small piece, like one user journey, can people log onto the website and fill out their name and their password and their birthday? You know, accessibility is about a lot of things, but one thing it’s about is coding on the back end and that one thing about putting your birthday into a form field if it’s not coded properly, many people who use assistive technology, which is technology that helps disabled people access content, they can’t fill in the birthday. The form is, the form can’t be completed.
Lainey Feingold: [00:28:55.21] So take one of your forms. Find out if it’s accessible. Fix it, if it isn’t. Celebrate when it’s fixed and see what it actually means to have something be accessible. Another thing is use of AI in HR. You’ve probably had a whole session on that, but, you know, AI has a real impact on people with disabilities, and the research shows that if you’re relying on AI for any part of the hiring process, people with certain disabilities, especially if the AI is evaluating, you know, facial movements or eye movements or any of these types of things can have a very negative impact, a total screen out on people with certain kinds of disabilities. So, it’s really important to become familiar with what are the AI issues in technology and how are they impacting the disabled people that you want to hire. And then I would just say that the hiring portal accessibility is so key because it’s like the door to employment, and there have been lawsuits around portals that haven’t been accessible. And so, I would say that’s, that’s something that can be a real win to get a little smaller, social media, emails.
Lainey Feingold: [00:30:16.11] There’s ways to make those accessible. Just give one, two little examples. One is any video should have captions. If you’re communicating by video, it has to be communicated to people who can’t hear. That’s something, could be big, could be small, but it’s something that you can do and get a feel for what it’s like to be inclusive. Another thing is if you’re using images. Well, blind people can’t see images, but if you code properly, then the images are described on the back end and all the major platforms, Twitter and Facebook, they give you the opportunity. I don’t know much about TikTok, but Instagram just, I think today, announced more accessibility features. So many of these things, Microsoft again, they have a built-in accessibility checker just like a spell checker. You just start using that and thinking about, oh, when I push out this email, is everybody going to be included in it or just some people? So, there’s lots to do. Your audience is on the front lines of inclusion. Your listeners are accessibility champions and the chance to be, you know, we always say accessibility is a civil right of disabled people and HR professionals really can be civil rights enforcers. So, it’s very exciting for me to talk to an audience who cares about these issues in the HR field.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:46.06] Well, you’ve given us so many good nuggets and resources. I’m going to direct everybody to the show notes at Workology.com. You can type in Lainey Feingold into the search engine there, and you’ll be able to connect with this episode if you don’t see it on the main page. Lainey, I just want to say thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, and I wanted to ask where people can go to learn more about you and the work that you continue to do in this area.
Lainey Feingold: [00:32:18.22] I do have a website. It’s LFLegal.com, and I put a lot of information up there about accessibility, about structured negotiation, about what’s happening in the legal space, and I’m active on Twitter and LinkedIn. You can find me there. I’ll say one thing in closing about my website, which is LFLegal.com. First of all, it is designed to be accessible. And I think if you go there, you’ll say, “Oh, this is an easy website to find things and get around.” And that’s because accessibility is essential for some, but it’s useful for all. When you start incorporating accessibility, you will see more and more people saying, “Wow, that was easy to fill out that form” or “wow, I’m really glad that was described in that way.” And then the last story about my website, LFLegal.com, is that when I first got my website, I was going to call it LaineyFeingold.com and a friend of mine said, “No one will know how to spell Lainey, no one will know how to spell Feingold, and your email address won’t fit on a line of braille on your business card.” My friend was blind, and I listened to him and I kind of now have a brand. This was before Twitter, he said, “Do LFLegal. So, you’ll fit in a line of braille on your business card.” So, it’s just a closing remembrance that accessibility is really about people and listening to people forming relationships and happy to answer any questions. Feel free to email me or reach out to the website and Jessica, thank you so much for having me on your show.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:33:58.65] Absolutely. And I love the closing thought there because it’s the small things that can really make people included and have access, and that’s what we’re here trying to do. So, I appreciate again your time and we’ll include all the resources in the show notes, and I can’t wait to, to catch up with you again soon.
Lainey Feingold: [00:34:23.94] Thank you so much.
Closing: [00:34:25.98] Digital accessibility is such an important part of any organization’s inclusion efforts, and there simply isn’t a quick one-time fix-all solution. By taking intentional efforts to bake accessibility into your organizational culture, you can continually build and sustain an inclusive environment for all employees and customers. In addition to reaping the benefits of inclusion, you’ll also stay naturally ahead of the legal curve. I am so thankful for Lainey to be here. Her insights and expertise on this special episode of the Workology Podcast powered by PEAT was really insightful. So many great nuggets of wisdom, and I hope that you learned a little bit about digital accessibility. Especially since so many of us are working remotely, hiring digitally and engaging our employees and customers all online. We need to be accessible and understand if the technologies or when the technologies we use, ensuring that they are inclusive and accessible for all. The Workology podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR exam.
Closing: [00:35:37.35] Personal and professional development is essential for successful HR leaders. Join Upskill HR to access live training, community, and over a hundred on-demand courses for the dynamic leader. HR recert credits available. Visit UpskillHR.com for more.
Closing: [00:35:52.95] This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and until next time, you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our Workology Podcast episodes.