Why empowering the middle is key to a more accessible future

As we approach Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) on May 20, I’ve been thinking about inclusive culture and what this means for organizations embracing accessibility.

Disability inclusion has historically been driven bottom-up in organizations by employees who have lived experience of disability self-advocating for the changes needed to be effective in their roles. As a self-advocate and someone who has worked in the field for decades, I have long talked about the need for an approach that is both top-down and bottom-up.

Acting on accessibility

Executive leaders are picking up the baton and running with accessibility in their organizations. Ours is no exception. Over the last decade, engagement from our top management has been increasing.

Moreover, the Valuable 500, of which we are a member, has brought together 500 CEOs committing to disability inclusion in their own organizations and beyond. This kind of engagement is very powerful and can have the effect of triggering the rapid change that grassroots advocacy is rarely able to achieve alone.

And while we can celebrate progress-driven from top-down and bottom-up, for us to really embed accessibility, we need a holistic approach to the topic in our organizations. The top and bottom need to meet in the middle. So why?

Empowering the middle

Middle management makes most day-to-day decisions about what gets done in any organization. The middle is one area we need to engage, enthuse and empower if we wish our accessibility programs to succeed. Fleur Bothwick, co-author of the book ‘Inclusive Leadership,’ talks about middle management as the permafrost of inclusion topics. Let’s be clear, it’s not that middle managers don’t care; it’s simply that the middle part of the organization has to make sense of and deal with so many different – sometimes conflicting – priorities.


Flexible working provides the perfect opportunity to push accessibility higher up the middle management agenda.

Embracing the opportunity

The past 15 months of Covid-19 have forced organizations to adopt flexible working. Flexible working provides the perfect opportunity to push accessibility higher up the middle management agenda.

Working remotely via teleconferencing can lead to isolation, burnout from back-to-back meetings and staring at a video screen all day have emerged as issues we cannot ignore. Many more people are now talking openly about the challenges they are facing or encountering now that the informal support network they may have previously relied upon in the office no longer exists.

Simultaneously, that flexibility has also dispelled the myth that it is impossible to allow people to work remotely or flexibly, something disabled employees have been advocating for consistently over the years.

Meeting in the middle

Meeting in the middle is also something we must embrace as accessible technologists. We even require flexibility and compromise within accessibility. The diverse needs and the technologies that support varying disabilities often have conflicting requirements.

There are also conflicting requirements within businesses. We have, for example, a duty to safeguard security to ensure we don’t allow privacy breaches or data leaks. But, at the same time, we also want to take advantage of the latest technologies to make the working environment and our products and services more accessible. So, once again, there has to be understanding, conversation and compromise.

We often devalue compromise, seeing it as something imperfect. In reality, however, a good compromise is a place where everyone benefits. Compromises unlock and dissolve division and enable progress – and that’s why it’s crucial we meet in the middle.

More about GAAD

GAAD is a community-driven effort whose goal is to dedicate one day to raising the profile of digital accessibility (web, software, mobile app/device, etc.) and sharing how people with different disabilities use and benefit from inclusive technologies.

Atos will host its seventh celebration of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) on May 20. Since GAAD is about awareness, we aim to engage the widest possible audience; business leaders will join academics and expert practitioners.

This year we are running a virtual event with presenters from across the globe. It will be live-streamed across multiple social media channels with live captioning and international sign language interpretation. Join us to discuss the future of inclusive digital transformation.

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About Neil Milliken
Head of Accessibility & Digital Inclusion and member of the Scientific Community
Neil Milliken is VP - Global Head of Accessibility & Digital Inclusionat Atos, member of the Atos Scientific Community & Atos Distinguished Expert. Neil is a leading strategist and community builder with over two decades of experience within the Accessibility and Assistive Technology fields and served as invited expert for the W3C Cognitive Accessibility Taskforce Neil is a member of the Board of Directors for World Institute on Disability, Non Exec Chair of the Board at Genius Within, member of the advisory board of the Valuable500 & Served as Chair of the Diversity Board for Institute of Coding. He is co-founder of AXSChat Europe’s largest twitter chat with a focus on Accessibility & Inclusion. Neil is dyslexic and has ADHD, he advocates for people with neurodivergent conditions as well as other disabilities and additional needs.

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