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Engaging those with disabilities: From Awareness to Equitable Inclusion and beyond


Of all the facets and demographic ‘buckets’ of humanity that we address and engage through diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts, the bucket of disabilities is one of the most interesting and challenging. There are two basic reasons for this:

  1. The disability bucket is vast. Disability refers to any person who has (or is perceived to have) an impairment that limits one or more major life activities, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Not only does that encompass a lot, it also leaves a lot of room for interpretation for what counts. This brings us to the second reason.

  2. The disability bucket is constantly evolving and morphing. Research around the human body, brain, developmental cycle, diseases, etc., is constant. And as our understanding of who we are and how we work continues to evolve and deepen, so does our understanding and perceptions around various disabilities. We see these shifts in how we define, describe, and accommodate those with different disabilities.

But, of course, with challenge comes a wealth of opportunity for creating inclusive, equitable environments where all our employees, including our colleagues with disabilities, can thrive.


START WITH THE WHY


There are two major reasons why it’s important to invest time and resources to creating inclusive, safe, and productive environments for those with disabilities.

  1. Adults with disabilities make up 26% of the population in the United States. Not only is that a high impact on your potential candidate pool, it’s also highly likely that you already have colleagues with disabilities.

  2. Disabled does not mean unable or sub-optimum for a job. Outstanding talent comes in many forms including those with disabilities. Therefore, strength in disability inclusion, equity, and belonging ensures your organization has access to and retains the best talent.

UNDERSTAND THE WHAT


To ensure inclusion, equity, and belonging for those with disabilities, it helps to know what it means to have a disability.


Applying the ADA definition within professional environments, people with disabilities are generally those that require alternative methods, augmentation, or assistance to perform one or more of their professional or daily tasks.


To organize inclusion and equity efforts across this vast landscape, it’s helpful to categorize disabilities. However, these categories are not perfect. Like all other aspects of humanity, not everyone fits cleanly into a category, and the categories themselves are ever evolving and restructuring. To make things more confusing, different organizations and associations categorize (and re-categorize) disabilities differently. Therefore, consider categories as guidelines to help organize the focus and efforts rather than rules to organize people.


For example, here’s the categorization we (currently) use:

  • Physical disabilities. These are any physical attributes that may hinder people from performing specific tasks or require intervention. They include motion, sensory, and developmental disorders. Examples include paralysis, missing or non-functional limbs, blindness, deafness, and dwarfism.

  • Health disabilities. These are any systemic disorders or diseases that may hinder people from performing specific tasks or require intervention. Examples include cardiovascular diseases, pulmonary diseases, immunocompromising disorders, and diabetes.

  • Neuro divergence: These are cognitive attributes that may hinder people from performing specific tasks or require intervention. (Note: this category generally does not include intellectual disabilities – i.e. they are not about intelligence). Examples include Autism, Asperger’s, ADD/ADHD, Dyslexia/Dysgraphia, and obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD).

  • Intellectual disabilities: These are problem solving, learning, and understanding attributes that may hinder people from performing specific tasks or require intervention. Examples include Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, and Prader-Willi syndrome.

  • Mental disabilities: These are mental/emotional/brain/chemical attributes that may hinder people from performing specific tasks or require intervention. Examples include anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and PTSD.

NAVIGATE THE CHALLENGES


Unfortunately, like with other areas of diversity, we are inheriting a pile of goop that adds challenges to inclusion, equity, and belonging efforts. In this case, the added challenge of stigma. Disabilities have a long history of being seen as negative, damaged, sub-human, sub-skilled, expensive, risky, etc. For many, it is a source of shame or confusion or ignorance.


And, while there are many strides being taken to lift the shadow of stigma and the shame, ignorance, and confusion that lurks with it, there is still a long way to go. For professional environments, this stigma has several common impacts.

  1. Lack of self-identification and self-knowledge. Not everyone will be comfortable self-identifying as having a disability, and many more go undiagnosed (i.e. not everyone who has a disability is aware of it or are afraid to face a diagnosis). This may present as sensitivity or avoidance to disability conversations and inclusion efforts and will impact an organization’s ability to get an accurate understanding of their employee demographics and needs.

  2. Increased anxiety and fear. Thanks to stigma, many actively hide their disability for fear of mistreatment or negative repercussions. Those individuals are likely under constant anxiety and/or a sense of fear of being discovered. This type of anxiety lowers focus and productivity, and reduces the ability to reach full potential (consider how you feel and act when you are trying to keep a secret and are worried someone may find out).

  3. Reluctance to request accommodations. Along with disabilities, reasonable accommodations has been stigmatized as expensive legal obligations to help sub-par employees. Such stigmas make it uncomfortable for many to both make requests and to respond to requests. However, without these accommodations, employees are unable to provide the maximum output for their teams and organization.

A second challenge with inclusion, equity, and belonging efforts for those with disabilities is in the category itself. The definition of ‘disability’ is so vast, it represents a wide range of needs and interventions which can make efforts feel daunting or fragmented. And, like all other attributes of humans, those with disabilities do not always fall into nice clean categories. Therefore, like every other part of humanity, there isn’t a single or small set of solutions that will meet everyone’s needs.



EMBRACE SOLUTIONS


Luckily, as leaders, influencers, managers, and citizens of our professional communities, there are many things we can do to create inclusive, safe, productive work environments for everyone, including our colleagues with disabilities.


Quick note: for maximum equity and inclusion, all solutions should be universal, and not just offered to those who have identified as having a disability or who may have a disability.


Here are a few ideas.


Focus on what must be achieved when evaluating candidates and employees, not how to achieve it.

Have you ever been shown a technique that didn’t work at all for you? Perhaps it was how to solve a math problem using blocks of things that did things or how to research a topic with a series of searches that wasn’t at all intuitive, or a way of managing your schedule that just left you feeling like you were drowning in tasks and check lists.


Not every technique works well for everyone. That doesn’t mean we can’t effectively solve the math problem or find those answers or get our work done. But sometimes, we need to do it our own way. This is the same with candidates and employees who have disabilities.


For example, blind employees can’t read a website to find information, but they can listen to it with a reader and find the same answers. Some neurodivergent employees may not do well with a highly defined schedule but can get their work done on time with high quality if given the flexibility to manage their own schedule.


When evaluating (all) candidates and employees, focus on the outcome, not the typical techniques for getting to the outcome.



Ask variations of “what do you need to be most productive” to all employees.

Are you a morning person or a night person (i.e. do you work more effectively in the morning or at night)? For all you morning people, wouldn’t it be great to have an hour or two first thing in the morning to get all your work done before those meetings start? And for all you night people, wouldn’t you get far more done if you were able to start an hour or two later and end your days plowing through that task list?


What about introverts vs. extroverts. Do any of you work better with recharge breaks filled with fun conversations? Do any of you work better when you have a quiet place to recharge in silence with your own thoughts?


Humans are all different, and, as such, we all have different things that will help us be at our most productive. For some of us this means a quiet place to recharge or a shifted schedule so we can jump right into meetings at 9:00 am and then get through the checklist at 9:00 pm. This is the same for our colleagues with disabilities.


For example, employees with diabetes may focus better when they have a private, safe place to store and take insulin. Some neurodivergent employees may focus better when they have noise-cancelling headphones to protect them from agitating ambient noises.


Open conversations to all employees for what the organization can do to optimize their productivity. Not singling anyone out and having conversations that focus on productivity and empowerment rather than ‘accommodation’ will enable more participation, a joint effort in finding reasonable solutions, and an increase in comfort for making requests.


Provide self-service information on available accommodations.

Have you ever needed a benefit or service, but you were not super comfortable asking your manager or HR if it was available or how it use it? Perhaps you need to know if that legal coverage extends to divorce lawyers, or if midwives are covered in your health benefits, or if there are financial advisors available that can help avoid foreclosure. The services are critical but asking your manager or colleagues about them may not be on the top of the list of conversations you want to have. It is the same for our colleagues with disabilities.


Rather than force your employees to self-identify or face uncomfortable conversations, publish a range of accommodations and services in a private, accessible location so employees can explore the range of options and how to get those options. In addition to avoiding those uncomfortable conversations, this will facilitate ideas for employees to identify their own needs and will showcase your organization’s amazing inclusion efforts.


Bonus tip: include an anonymous suggestion interface and invite other ideas for what else you can offer to ensure all employees thrive.



Offer and advertise an anonymous ‘help’ hotline.


Have you ever faced a difficult situation and you have no idea what to do? Perhaps it was one of your employees emotionally accusing someone of passing them up for an opportunity due to preferential treatment, but you know it isn’t true. Or maybe it was a colleague coming to you in confidence with a personal story that will have a heavy impact on their ability to perform their job. Or maybe you observed a microaggression involving a high-ranking executive. Or maybe, it is an employee who you suspect has a disability and needs an accommodation, but they are not self-identifying or requesting help. Whether it involves a disability or not, the workplace is full of challenging situations, and we don’t always know what to do.


Give employees a safe, anonymous place to go to ask questions about difficult topics, including questions about their own disabilities or work with others with disabilities. Ideally the hotline is staffed by highly knowledgeable third-party professionals, and the privacy of the conversations are well-protected. Make sure the hotline is both available and is advertised so employees know about the service and how to use it.


And a few more tips: