Best Face Forward

“Assuming competence from day one is a must if you want to retain talented disabled employees…”

So said Nancy Doyle in a recent Forbes article entitled “Assume Competence: Neurodivergent Staff Don’t Need Kid Gloves.”

This advice came to mind during a recent conversation between two visually-impaired people and a COO of an upcoming nonprofit organization.

“How can I make my presentations more accessible to blind people?” the COO asked us.

After an awkward pause, my visually-impaired colleague and the COO began an increasingly lively conversation sharing the often similar challenges they experienced creating PowerPoint presentations: what fonts to use, how to incorporate headings, what content to include on which slide–

“Don’t worry about it so much,” my colleague counseled. “The easiest thing to do is to ask disabled people who will be attending your presentation if you get the chance.”

“My take on this might be a bit weird,” I interjected, “but are you aware of the concept of universal design?”

Verbal head nods.

“Well, we usually think about universal design in conjunction with environments: how many non-disabled people use wheelchair ramps, for example. But over the years, I have discovered that this concept is relevant to leadership best practices – that those who do best leading people different from themselves are often better leaders for everyone.”

More verbal head nods.

“This concept might also apply to presentations,” I continued. “Like most non-disabled people, we dread PowerPoint presentations. They’re dull. Crammed with unnecessary information. Disorganized. Preachy.”

“True,” someone said with a smile in her voice.

“So by improving your presentation skills, you will make everyone happier. Put only one concept per slide, and let your presentation and each participant’s notetaking skills do the rest. Accept that people learn more if they believe they are controlling their learning. Mix stories and statistics, because stories bring feelings into the picture — and feelings, not thoughts, drive action.”

This led to a brief discussion about the downsides of cramming too much information onto a slide, and how to address this challenge.

“And we could do a lot of good by trying to figure out if another approach might be better in conveying information than a PowerPoint presentation,” I said, trying to conclude my ad hoc presentation smoothly. “And we would each do well in trying to assume that everyone we meet is competent, especially those who are significantly different from us.”

This essay was written under the auspices of Blind Institute of Technology™ (BIT, a nonprofit organization that envisions a world in which disabled people have the same employment opportunities as their peers. They aim to help disabled professionals and the employers who hire them find synergistic success through education, preparation, and accessible technology. For additional information, please visit their website).