Policies that support employment of people with disabilities

Attracting candidates with disabilities is just one part of the complete “increasing representation of employees with disabilities” conundrum. Policies supporting PwDs is the next part

Magnet “attracting” various cartoon characters of different genders and ethnicities
Magnet “attracting” various cartoon characters of different genders and ethnicities

Part 2 of a three-part article. Read Part 1 on policies impacting employees with disabilities and Part 3 (retaining employees with disabilities)

In part 1 of this article I discussed recruiting barriers that prevent people with disabilities from even getting into the door or being taken seriously as candidates. These barriers include:

  • bias exhibited by both computers and AI against candidates with disabilities;
  • interviewers who are not trained in how to interview people with disabilities;
  • lack of recruiting at disability specific college events; and
  • lack of disability-specific internships.

The focus of this middle one-third of the article is on policies that create barriers to converting candidates with disabilities into employees with disabilities.

Many organization’s inclusion diversity / equity /equality / inclusion / belonging (whatever it is called) program have policies or goals benefiting people identifying as veterans, LGBTQ+, gender, belonging to different ethnic groups, having caregiver responsibilities, or belonging to specific (usually young or old) age groups. Few specifically call out disability. That silence about disability speaks more than 1000 words. It means organizationally, the employer doesn’t consider people with disabilities to be an under-represented minority, when, in fact, they may be the most under-represented minority out there. There is even a hashtag for this behavior: #Diversish.

What gets rewarded gets repeated. What doesn’t even make an organization’s public website and executive interviews clearly can’t be that important to their mission or values, regardless of what the organization’s mission and values actually state. Mid-level managers and executives are not likely to focus budget or energy on items that their leadership is silent about.

When reasonable accommodations are left in the hands of hiring managers, they are erratically implemented at best and downright discriminatory at worst. One manager might say yes, because they have budget. Another might say no to the same request under identical circumstances. There are also very strict privacy rules around reasonable accommodation requests — what the manager can ask for in terms of documentation, and how the request data can be disclosed and stored. In some states, contractors are entitled to make reasonable accommodation requests.

When reasonable accommodation decisions are left to individual managers with different profit centers and motivations without centralized oversight, bias will creep in

When an employee (or eligible contractor) makes reasonable accommodation request (n.b. — the term “reasonable accommodation” does not have to be used) an interactive process requirement is triggered. If the manager doesn’t engage in the legally prescribed interactive process with the employee / contractor, a very expensive EEOC complaint or lawsuit can result. This is especially true if the employee is later disciplined, financially penalized, or loses their job over things that the requested accommodations could have potentially mitigated.

Organizations are best served by having a centralized accommodations process that is offered to EVERYONE at the following times:

  1. Pre-employment (for completion of the application and any exams)
  2. Onboarding
  3. Return from any type of leave
  4. Delivery of a less than satisfactory review

By offering reasonable accommodations to *all* employees at these checkpoints, the organization will avoid the headaches of:

  1. Stigmatizing employees that are being singled out for accommodation offers
  2. Missing employees with hidden disabilities
  3. Missing employees with temporary or permanent disabilities acquired during a medical leave

Being able to tell a prospective employee that an organization has a centralized RA process that is open to all employees at any time sends the message “we’ve thought this through and we actually care.”

Remote work is a really great option for people with disabilities, for the following reasons:

  1. Being able to work remotely reduces the burden of commuting. For some people with disabilities, commuting is merely tiring. For others, commuting on a regular basis may impossible. Just because you can’t commute doesn’t mean you can’t do the job, especially in tech !
  2. Being able to work remotely reduces the effort of preparing for work. For people with mobility issues, preparing for work can take much longer than for people without disabilities.
  3. Being able to work remotely also allows people with disabilities to work around whatever schedule their disability imposes. A few examples of schedule modifications people with disabilities might need include frequent small meals, extra trips to the restroom, or starting early and ending the work day early for physical therapy.

Therefore, lack of support for WFH is can be a deciding negative factor for candidates with disabilities as well. Having a well-defined WFH process means a new employee knows exactly what to expect and their request can’t be denied simply because “the hiring manager doesn’t like WFH.” Furthermore, WFH is specifically identified by the EEOC as a potential reasonable accommodation for someone with a disability. So an organization whose official or unofficial position is “we don’t support WFH, ever, period” may be acting illegally in the United States with respect to its employees and eligible contractors with disabilities.

Disability ERGs can be important to the success of employees with disabilities. If a large company does not have a Disability ERG, that’s a red flag.

But wait, you say, our employees’ requests *drive* our ERG creation.

And no one has requested a Disability ERG.

Stop and think about that for a moment. People with disabilities are 11 % of the possible 18–65 workforce demographic. Maybe there hasn’t been a Disability ERG request because:

  • The organization has been discriminating against people with disabilities by either not interviewing them or not hiring them.
  • Alternatively, people with disabilities have been hired but don’t stay, possibly in part because they don’t have the support of a Disability ERG or a centralized accommodations process.
  • The organization does not generate a level of comfort with their employees that encourages them to self-identify as having a disability.
  • The organization just flat out hasn’t been listening.

None of the above are good. Hence the “red flag” comment. Another item related to Disability ERGs that shows true commitment to inclusion and belonging would be mentoring and coaching programs specifically designed for employees with disabilities.

It doesn’t matter how many employees with disabilities an organization has if they won’t self-identify. People might not understand that their condition actually is a disability. Or, people who think of themselves as disabled may identify as not having a disability when applying for a job, worried about stigma or discrimination. Maybe after some period of time seeing employees with visible disabilities treated well, they may want to change their mind about their identifying, but not know how. Sometimes employees don’t even know they *can* change their self-identification status.

Having a regular self-identification campaign in July (ADA Birthday Month)* or October (National Disability Employment Month)* is a great way to remind employees that:

  • The organization cares about employees’ disability status
  • The organization wants employees to feel comfortable disclosing their disability status and is supportive of employees bringing their authentic selves to work
  • Reasonable accommodations (hopefully centralized) are available
  • Things that employees might not think of as a disability such as mental health issues or intermittent medical conditions might actually qualify.

*Any other month is fine too. These months just give you an excuse :-)

How do you know if your organization’s policies have a bias against disability?

The quote I want on my tombstone is “A rising diversity tide should raise all boats” — that is even the working title of my upcoming book.

People with disabilities, as a group, are the largest minority group in the US. What makes that percentage seem smaller than it actually is, is the wide variety of possible disabilities. The core five disability categories are generally considered neurological, cognitive, sight, vision, and mobility. At the end of the day, each disability category has very different impact and needs. Additionally:

  • There is very little overlap between any of the core five disability categories
  • There is nothing preventing an individual from belonging to multiple disability categories
  • Even two people with the exact same medical diagnosis may have different needs and unique impacts caused by their identical disability

The short answer is if any of the five items highlighted in this article are true about an organization, that organization is not doing as much as they could for employees (or candidates) with disabilities. There is a federal government voluntary 503(b) goal of 7 % self-identified employees with disabilities. Only one large company in the US has achieved that goal. To achieve the seven percent goal, approximately one out of every 30 employees needs to have a visible disability, and one out of every fifteen should be comfortable self identifying that they have a hidden disability.

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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