People with disabilities bring the value of different perspectives and experiences to any organization. Not only that, but research consistently shows that they often perform better than many of their colleagues, stay longer at a company – and take less leave. Yet they are still some of the most under-represented individuals in the workplace. They are rarely the focus of diversity activity and, when companies do seek to include people with disabilities, they often medicalize their needs, rather than working in partnership with them. They often start with an occupational health assessment, for example – telling people what they already know about themselves at a cost to the business.
Here are 5 practical tips for business leaders serious about progressing towards true inclusion for people with disabilities:
1. It’s the environment that disables a person
The way that our societies and organizations are structured creates barriers for people with different abilities. Someone with autism, for example, may struggle with the social requirements within an interview process. For someone with a visual impairment, it may be the way information is presented visually. In order to be disability inclusive, these barriers need to be removed to create a more accessible environment as standard, not in isolation. And, in the rapid shift to virtual working, it’s even more important that this new environment is accessible for people with different abilities and needs.
2. Work in partnership, not around people
To truly understand what you need to do differently to make your workplace and brand more disability inclusive, you need to work with – and listen to – your people with disabilities. It’s likely that you have people in your company who have knowledge and experience, and are willing to help, if you just ask. So, when reviewing your people processes, or creating new virtual environments or products, ask for input from your people with different accessibility needs; but be prepared to listen and act on the feedback. This will serve to not only increase your accessibility but also ensure your people with disabilities feel respected and valued.
3. Know that not everyone identifies with the term disability
As with any business activity, data and measurement are essential to planning and progression. So, you will want to understand how many people in your organization have a disability, compared with your regional benchmark. However, some companies struggle to collect this data, not just because trust still needs to be built that you really care about inclusion and accessibility, but also because not everyone who has a disability in the eyes of the law identifies with the term disability. So, it can be more helpful to ask people about the accessibility need or workplace adjustment they need. That way, you can understand how best you can support people to do their jobs and feel included.
4. Make remote and flexible working easy to access
The pandemic has forced many organizations to embrace remote and flexible working, and this can be even more important for people with disabilities, who are at greater risk of the effects of Covid-19. By making remote and flexible working easy to access, by providing the right tools for people to be able to work safely remotely, by giving people the flexibility to work in a way that’s right for them, and by treating people with trust and integrity, you can better look after all of your people.
5. Managers don’t need to be disability experts
It’s important that managers understand how to create a disability inclusive environment, and how to implement workplace adjustments for their team. Educating managers on specific disabilities can lead to stereotyping, and can make managers feel overwhelmed – perhaps even leading to them avoiding hiring a person with a disability for fear of getting something wrong. They don’t need to be disability experts, but they do need to know how to access information and resources about different disabilities as and when they need it.
The key to each of these actions is to work with people with disabilities, trusting that they know their needs best and working together to find solutions that are right for them. When in doubt, don’t make an assumption on someone’s behalf – ask them the question and listen to the answer.