ATLANTA—Organizations focusing on disability as an aspect of diversity should pay attention to four distinct segments of the population, according to Nadine Vogel, president of Springboard Consulting: adults with disabilities, maturing workers with age-related disabilities, veterans with service-related disabilities, and employees who have children or dependents with special needs.
Vogel noted during an April 27, 2010, learning session held here as part of the 11th Annual Linkage Summit on Leading Diversity that most organizations employ people affected by disabilities. An estimated 15 percent of employees in any organization have a disability or have a child with special needs, she said, even though the employer might not be aware of it.
Where to Begin?
Vogel, who specializes in the employment of, and marketing to, the disability community, suggested that, before taking further action, employers should assess the state of disability inclusion in their organizations. To do so, employers should find ways to gather input from employees and other key stakeholders about their needs, interests and fears related to disabilities in the workplace. “Do not start a new recruiting program if you are not ready,” she cautioned. At a minimum, she said the organization should ensure that managers have been trained, that emergency evacuation plans include people with disabilities and that physical barriers are identified. In addition, Vogel suggested that employers pay special attention to things such as:
Recruiting—Identify how and where to find people with disabilities who have the skills the organization needs, from the CEO on down, rather than seeking to fill only unskilled, entry-level positions.
Training—In addition to ensuring that managers understand their legal obligations, Vogel recommends that organizations provide awareness and etiquette training to help employees face fears, misconceptions or concerns they might have about working with those with disabilities.
Employee Benefits—Employers should determine if their benefits are inclusive for those with disabilities. For example, some benefit plans have provisions for certain kinds of treatments, such as speech therapy that can be used by those with short-term needs (such as recovery from a stroke) but that exclude those with long-term needs associated with a disability.
Information Resources—The availability of information and referrals for needed services is a plus, according to Vogel, but it’s best if employees can access such information directly, such as through a company’s intranet site, instead of having to call someone.
Using an Employee Resource Group
Vogel said that some employers create an employee resource group or networking group focused on disability issues to further their efforts. One such organization is KPMG, LLP, a global professional service firm providing audit, tax and advisory services.
Barbara Wankoff, director of workplace solutions at KPMG—Vogel’s co-presenter for the session—said the structure of her organization, in which employees often work at client sites, makes it difficult to control the work environment and bring employees together for training and support. That’s why the organization relies on its employee networks as vehicles for action on diversity issues.
Wankoff said the national chairs of the diversity-related networks are senior-level partners who sit on the firm’s Diversity Advisory Board. The Disabilities Network is the newest such network, formed in December 2007, to help KPMG:
- Foster a work environment that recognizes people of all abilities.
- Increase awareness of the impact a disability or disabilities can have on an individual’s life and family.
- Foster a culture of respect and inclusion as it relates to people with disabilities and their families.
A partner who has a child with Down syndrome was asked to chair the network when it launched. A partner in Omaha heard about the group, disclosed that she had multiple sclerosis and was offered the opportunity to serve as co-chair. Wankoff said this kind of leadership support has been a key element of the firm’s diversity strategy.
Eleven local chapters of the Disabilities Network have developed organically in locations where there is sufficient interest and a champion to lead the group. “When it comes from the local environment, there is a lot more traction,” Wankoff said.
Other KPMG Efforts
Constant internal and external communication is another element of the firm’s strategy. “The more we can make people understand that we are committed to supporting this population, the more people will come forward,” she said. Part of the communication process was the creation of an extensive web site on disability-related issues, which is intended to serve as the first place employees shop for resources.
In order to simplify the accommodation process, KPMG formed a committee to deal with reasonable accommodations so that employees have an alternative to going to their supervisor to request assistance. Wankoff noted that some equipment requests are easy to fill. The tougher issues are those that deal with the way work is performed, such as the hours of work and travel.
Ensuring physical accessibility might seem like an impossible task for an organization that leases most of its office space. However, an initial audit addressing approximately 15,000 items revealed just 500 issues for the organization to address.
Despite the program’s success, Wankoff noted that the results of anonymous surveys, in which employees are asked if they are a person with a disability or a caregiver of someone with a disability, revealed that caregivers feel more supported at work than those who have disabilities. As a result, the firm is forming a task force of employees who have disclosed that they have disabilities in order to look at the issues more closely.
KPMG’s Awareness Training
The firm is working to increase disability awareness through the use of training, provided mostly in-person using a train-the-trainer approach, though Wankoff noted that the economic downturn dampened the firm’s training plans temporarily.
The training, developed by Vogel for KPMG, focuses on topics such as:
Terms and phrases—Employees are taught to avoid outdated and negative terms such as “handicapped” and “confined” to a wheelchair.
Reception area etiquette—Those who welcome visitors to an organization should greet visitors with disabilities with respect by refraining from yelling or talking down to them, offering assistance only if it seems to be needed and by knowing accessible routes to bathrooms, water fountains and the like.
Wheelchair etiquette—A wheelchair is an extension of a person’s body, Vogel said, and should not be touched. Sit when speaking to someone in a wheelchair so the person doesn’t have to crane their neck.
Interacting with those who are visually impaired—Let the person know when you approach and depart, describe surroundings as you walk through the office, and, if they use a cane, don’t move it.
Communicating with those who are deaf or hard of hearing—Such individuals communicate in a variety of ways, Vogel said, and some don’t read lips. Face the person and speak clearly, but don’t shout, she said.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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