Disability inclusive workplaces

Most diversity / inclusion articles don’t include disability. Here are things you need to consider to succeed at disability-related inclusion

Four gender, ethnicity and ability cartoon people sitting at a table with plants on a yellow background
Four gender, ethnicity and ability cartoon people sitting at a table with plants on a yellow background
Yeah, that’s a lot of yellow. But I loved the graphic. Thanks stock.adobe.com !

HBR recently published an article called 5 Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Workspace. And while the article is brilliant for addressing race, gender, and standard diversity dimensions, it didn’t include any examples of disability related inclusion. There’s even a hashtag for “diversity that doesn’t include disability” — it’s #Diversish.

The number of people with disabilities is increasing in the world in general, and the United States in particular.

  • As disability gets more accepted, more people are willing to disclose the fact that they have a disability (especially invisible disabilities).
  • As health care improves, people who would have died in the past instead survive, but with disabilities.
  • Military conflict creates disabled veterans. Sad but true.

Disability is a very complicated diversity element:

  • There are five major disability groups — neurological, mobility, vision, hearing, and “other” which includes things like autoimmune disorders, fibromyalgia, and mental health.
  • Each grouping can contain several categories within the grouping. Neurological for example, includes autism, epilepsy, ADHD, Multiple Sclerosis and dyslexia among other conditions.
  • Each item within the category may have a wide range of symptoms, and an equally wide range of assistive technologies and therapies.
  • Two people may have the exact same disability and compensate for it in completely different ways. Not all deaf people use sign language, for example
  • Individuals may have multiple, unrelated disabilities.
  • People with congenital disabilities have a very different psychological response than people with acquired disabilities.

Taking this disability variety into account, I’ve adapted the HBR “Five Inclusion Strategies” to look at inclusion strategies through a “disability lens”.

Strategy #1: Emphasize the business case for disability-related diversity and inclusion

With a population with a growing percentage of individuals with disabilities, companies need diverse leaders who reflect the changing marketplace and employee base. HBR’s research finds that when workplace teams are constructed to reflect their target customers, the entire team is more than twice as likely to innovate effectively for their end users.

When organizations intentionally exclude (which includes just plain forgetting about) people with disabilities as customers, they are throwing away almost 20 % of their potential customers off the top. No one wakes up and thinks to themselves “I’m going to piss off one-fifth of my potential customers / employees / coworkers today.”

Strategy #2: Recognize disability bias

Disability bias can be as subtle as an interviewing video that tells managers to shake candidates hands and make eye contact. Every time I see that tired, ableist trope, I go off the deep end.

  • Not everyone can (or is comfortable) shaking hands
  • Not everyone can (or is comfortable) making eye contact

And that goes for BOTH the candidate AND the interviewer. Declaring the importance of “shaking hands and making eye contact” as part of the recruiting process makes it MUCH harder for someone with autism, anxiety, or vision challenges to be an interviewer, or the successful candidate for that job.

Here is another subtle example of disability bias: at orientation for my current employer, the stage could not be reached by a wheelchair user. I immediately mentally questioned whether I had made the right decision in leaving a high paying contract to come to a company that didn’t think that someone like me would ever need to be on stage. I soon realized that the leaders at my employer had their hearts in the right place, they just needed someone to tell them what to do. I had to step up and be that someone, both for me and everyone who comes after me.

Companies need to take active steps to identify and root out ableist behavior in its materials and facilities. It’s as simple as that. And as complicated as that, too.

- Start with making sure that disability is thoughtfully included in your unconscious bias training.

- Task your facilities group with performing an accessibility audit of your entire campus. Make sure it’s a campus that has been moved into and not just an empty building prior to occupation. Even better, make the facilities group go through the building in a wheelchair or with a blindfold on. While absolutely do NOT agree with simulating disabilities as an empathy building exercise, I think as a problem identification exercise it is a useful thing to do.

- Don’t know where to start? Ask your disabled employees ERG what are the known problems they want you to address.

- Don’t have a disability ERG group? Start one.

Strategy #3: Practice disability inclusive leadership

Leaders need to create a safe team environment where any employee feels comfortable to speak up, be heard, and feel welcome without fear of retaliation. They should embrace the input of employees whose lived experience or expertise differ from theirs. Leaders should do everything with employees with disabilities that they do with any other employee that identifies as belonging to a majority gender or ethnic group:

  • involve all members of the team, including those with disabilities
  • provide actionable feedback to employees with disabilities
  • act on the advice of employees with disabilities
  • value the authenticity of their employees with disabilities
  • think about event access for employees with disabilities or guests with disabilities
  • offer reasonable accommodations to all team members, not just the ones they *think* have a disability

Strategy #4: Sponsor disability-specific opportunities

Disability opportunities really aren’t that much different than programs that specifically target women or people of color. They include activities like:

  • Establishing internship opportunities targeting people with disabilities.
  • Recruiting at events sponsored by disability chapters of universities.
  • Attending or sponsoring events like Disability:IN and other conferences established by and for people with disabilities.
  • Including disability status in your corporate definition of underrepresented minorities.
  • Including participants with disabilities in mentoring programs, sponsoring programs, or reverse mentoring opportunities.

Strategy #5: Hold leaders accountable for their disability inclusive behavior

Disability inclusion needs to be a core value at every level of a company up to and including the board or directors, not just a box checking exercise. The Disability Equality Index (DEI) from Disability:IN is one way of comprehensively measuring high-level issues pertaining to disability that an organization may face. Use your DEI results to create a roadmap to close disability gaps and put your organization on a path to disability inclusion. Other things an organization can do include:

  • Track disability self identification rates. They should increase over time as an organization becomes well known as a good place for people with disabilities to land, and existing employees choose to update their self-identification status.
  • Make disability part of the talent acquisition strategy, and not just a “nice thing to do”.
  • Measure elements of disability maturity. Are you procuring accessible software? Training on disability-related issues? Offering reasonable accommodations to everyone starting with the interview process?
  • Tie bonuses to achieving disability and accessibility related goals. If program/product managers receive bonuses for on-time releases or features, but not for accessibility, guess what they will focus on?

If you think the disability inclusion effort isn’t about you, you are very very wrong. There are two groups of people: people who currently have disabilities, and people that will have a disability in the future.

By advocating for disability inclusion, you are advocating for your future self

There really is no downside to creating a disability inclusive environment, but many things that can be lost by failing to do so, not the least of which is getting sued and all that entails.

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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