Alex Pepper: Small improvements are just as impactful as sweeping change

Alex Pepper, head of accessibility at Guide Dogs, explains that when it comes to accessible and inclusive workplaces, it’s often the small actions that can make a world of difference.
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Accessibility to me is about empowering everyone to thrive in their job role. Whether someone has sight loss, is neurodivergent, is returning from maternity leave, or has any other lived experience which requires a reasonable adjustment. It is about the barriers that can make things challenging, marginalise or stop people from participating altogether. At Guide Dogs, we haven’t always got it right, but we are committed to doing things better, and I was taken on in this newly created role to continue to put accessibility at the heart of everything we do.

Being in a large virtual meeting could be challenging for some - it can be difficult to know who’s in the meeting and speaking, and unnecessary use of the chat function causes screen readers to automatically read out each message as it’s sent - but we’ve worked hard at Guide Dogs to create inclusive practices. For example, everyone makes a point of introducing themselves at the start and when speaking, we have cameras on for the benefit of lip readers, and we make use of the closed caption function. These small but effective things are just examples of helping to build an inclusive culture, as outlined in our recently unveiled Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategy.

Coming from the perspective of being a guide dog owner, that doesn’t necessarily need to be anything too complicated or costly. It’s best to start with the basics which might simply be announcing your name when you come into and leave a room, making documents accessible by using built-in accessible headings and styles, and sharing materials ahead of meetings.

What is equally important is listening to people’s lived experiences and asking them what support, equipment or adaptations would enable them to do well in their role – we’re all individuals and our experiences vary a lot. For example, high contrast dark text on a white background might be easier for one person to read, and white text on a dark background may work better for another. We now discuss this with new recruits before they start so they have the peace of mind that they’ll have everything they need from day one.

At Guide Dogs, we’re focusing on improving accessibility for our vision impaired colleagues across three main areas – our buildings, technology and culture. As we develop our sites and centres, that might be low tech yet high impact changes such as different textured flooring to mark out obstruction-free pathways, good lighting and large print and Braille signage.

We also provide any assistive technology people require, from screen readers to large print keyboards or magnification software, along with the support to use this tech.

Finally, it’s about embedding accessibility into the culture. In my experience, Guide Dogs is full of good people but sighted staff need to be given the tools to better understand the barriers faced by their vision impaired colleagues and the impact their actions can inadvertently have.

We provide mandatory training on how to guide someone with sight loss, and create accessible documents, but we’re developing vision impairment awareness sessions and plan to do more. Alongside this, we’re also piloting a mentor scheme to support staff with lived experience to develop their confidence, skills and achieve their career aspirations.

I’d encourage all employers to think about what they can do to improve accessibility. There are so many small changes that often aren’t difficult or expensive to implement and make all the difference in empowering people to carry out their day-to-day tasks more independently. The key really is thinking about what people can do (or do with adaptations) rather than what they can’t.

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