As 2020 comes to a close, and we look ahead to the new year, it’s a good time to consider one of the major undercurrents of this past year – an increased awareness of, and call to action for, Diversity and Inclusion.  In this interview with Michelle Arentz, owner of Lazarus Learning LLC, we explore elements of this important issue, and what can be done about it.

What are you seeing or hearing in regards to Diversity and Inclusion in business?

There’s certainly a healthy dose of “chatter” out there on the subject. I think many organizations came to realize, after seeing larger protests and louder outcries about injustice and inequality this year, that it’s time to step up their game. I was recently part of a virtual community forum for HR and learning professionals, and the conversation turned to the need for finding ways to incorporate more Diversity and Inclusion (or D&I for short), into their practices. I found this refreshing, but it was also agreed that this is not an easy fix, or a fast one. 

What do you think are the main challenges to having more Diversity and Inclusion in business?

I’m sure there are many, but what comes to mind most is the complexity of the issue, the commitment it can take to make that move, and the fear that if it’s not done well, it may do more damage than good. Diversity can mean so many things, and there’s a variety of opinions on just what diversity is, or how to address it. This can seem daunting, and for sure it can be uncomfortable to start some overdue conversations about it. It’s a huge topic in its own right, but I will say that without clear leadership and commitment from the top of an organization, it’s much harder to shift the paradigm. And without making any effort to improve or change, nothing gets done. We do have to find ways to shed some of those fears and dive in.

How can an organization start implementing Diversity and Inclusion?

An easier place to start, perhaps, is with some of the less obvious, but equally important, aspects of D&I. Instead of tackling something as complex as racism or sexism, why not try out some measures that address needs for inclusion, but maybe aren’t so emotionally tense. A good example of this is taking stock of how a company handles things like an employee’s or customer’s ability to understand their messages and materials. Are there needs for both visual and auditory input being met?

That’s an interesting idea. How does that aspect of business align with D&I efforts?

Well, let’s not forget that we have significant numbers of the American population who struggle with vision, and/or reading. Right out of the gate, there are roughly 14 million people in the US with a visual impairment, of which 3 million cannot be corrected with measures like glasses or contact lenses (Study Finds Most Americans Have Good Vision, But 14 Million Are Visually Impaired | National Institutes of Health (NIH)). So, how well are they navigating your website, your promotional materials, your internal memos or other documents? Other statistics indicate close to 11% of our population has a cognitive disability, which could include the ability to process information in a visual format (Disability Impacts All of Us Infographic | CDC).

The numbers are also significant for impairments such as dyslexia, which affects more than 30 million Americans, or roughly 15% of the population (www.dyslexia-reading-well.com/dyslexia-statistics.html). That’s nothing to sneeze at, and it means many of our businesses have customers and employees who struggle with reading and comprehension. ReadSpeaker has already shared terrific information on this topic, October is Dyslexia Awareness Month – ReadSpeaker, and how Text-to-Speech (TTS) technology can help bridge the gaps.

Finally, in addition to the large number of foreign language speakers, we still have a surprising number of Americans who cannot read, or read well. We’re talking about more than 32 million adults in this country who are illiterate, and another 21% who cannot read at a grade 5 level or above (brandongaille.com/us-literacy-rate-and-illiteracy-statistics). Those are pretty incredible numbers on the whole.

Those are surprising numbers. What does that mean for businesses that want to improve their Diversity and Inclusion efforts?

I see this as a golden opportunity for many organizations to make changes that can significantly improve how their customers and employees engage. Why not take advantage of technologies that already exist, and work well, that ultimately allow those who struggle with written and visual elements to participate more fully? Text to Speech (TTS) enables people to hear instead of just seeing. Look how many of us already appreciate being able to talk to a smartphone or smart speaker to get information and answers. Consider what watching a video is like when the sound is off… we don’t enjoy it as much, or focus our attention on it. 

Taking steps towards incorporating more TTS into business functions means greater engagement, which drives greater productivity.  We already know that bimodal learning provides better outcomes for students, regardless of ability ([Video] 5 Benefits of Bimodal Learning – ReadSpeaker). If you know you can effectively improve learner outcomes, even just for your own staff, wouldn’t you want that kind of ROI? I know in my practice as a learning and development consultant and content creator, I’m insistent that what I produce includes audio as well as visual components. 

Good point. Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Diversity and Inclusion as well?

Oh, absolutely. The required shift to virtual for so many otherwise in-person activities has been a game changer, and one that likely will reverberate for years to come. It has certainly proved that many of us could work from home and get the job done (and many will want to continue a level of greater flexibility even after we can return safely to workplaces). But it also highlighted a great deal of inequality. Again, I believe that greater use of TTS can help close some gaps.

How can we use text to speech to close gaps in Diversity and Inclusion in business?

There are a few key areas worth considering. First, education was significantly impacted when it moved online. Students without great access to technology, or the support of in-person learning, certainly are suffering. This is going to ripple out for a while, and eventually, hit the labor market, when those youngsters graduate from school. Getting them text to speech as an online learning support is critical now (Equality of access in the COVID-19 educational landscape – ReadSpeaker). We should never forget that students of today are workers of tomorrow, and with that, we will face more future employees who may need a “boost” in the workplace after the supports they had in their foundational educational years are gone. 

Also, those workers on the frontlines during this pandemic are under additional stress. Distancing, barriers, PPE and such in the workplace mean we have fewer visual cues to rely on when communicating. TTS can help augment visuals with an audio component. Let’s also not forget that many “essential” workers are also part of the labor force who may have English as a second language, or struggle with learning disabilities, which brings us back to my earlier point that having auditory support from technologies like text to speech mean they have a greater opportunity to connect with whatever information their employee requires of them.

Finally, the work from home situation may mean that more interactions, including meetings, training courses, and customer calls are happening virtually. This is not the space most of us are used to operating in, and the visual cues are compromised. Text to speech can be a way of boosting communication connections, meeting people where they are, instead of where we want them to be. The same goes for our customers; how are we helping them connect with us in these challenging times?

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About Michelle Arentz

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With degrees in Communication Studies and Education, learning has been an integral part of Michelle’s life.  Having woven a career tapestry over the past 20+ years that has moved between corporate learning and development and public education, for her, it’s a calling, not just a career.  With many years’ experience in content, course, and program design and delivery, making learning engaging and meaningful is her mission.  Sharing her love of facilitating and teaching, she has reached a wide range of audiences, from high school students to manufacturing plant workers to corporate leaders, both domestically and abroad.  Now operating as an independent consultant and instructional designer in her business, Michelle blends her skills and passion for skill and knowledge advancement in the service of clients who wish to improve the life-long learning journey of themselves and their employees.

About Lazarus Learning

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Lazarus Learning LLC was inspired by Michelle’s desire to ‘breathe new life’ into learning content, resurrecting existing materials clients may have, or creating it from scratch.  Years of experience in learning and development proved that while many have great knowledge and abilities, it’s not always evident in the materials they have.   Everyone benefits when given access to enriched and engaging learning materials and experiences, and Michelle is determined to help rid the world of “death by PowerPoint” as she applies her talents to learning and development projects.