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How Managers Can Help People With Disabilities Advance

Avoid assumptions about what team members can do.

A cartoon of a man and a woman standing next to a lion.

​Employees with disabilities often believe they don’t have the same opportunities for advancement within their companies as employees without disabilities do.

Overall, employees with disabilities are less confident that their skills will be used effectively or that their employer will trust them to use sound judgment when performing their jobs, according to a 2021 report from Mercer and Global Disability Inclusion. 

Whether an employee with a disability is afforded the same leadership development opportunities as other employees often depends on the individual’s manager.

Leaders “need to look for ways to give people with disabilities opportunities to be visible in front of a group,” says PwC Tax Director Rob Rusch, a disability inclusion advocate. “If we live in a world where an individual in a wheelchair is visible, then it starts to break down that perception” that someone in a wheelchair may not be capable of performing a certain job.

Here are four ways managers can provide advancement opportunities for employees with disabilities.

Encourage Self-Identification

More companies are encouraging employees with disabilities, particularly those with so-called invisible disabilities that aren’t readily apparent, to disclose their disability status. People who self-identify as having a disability are more engaged with their organizations, managers and teams than those who don’t self-identify, according to Mercer and Global Disability Inclusion’s The State of Disability Employment Engagement, which looked at 12 million responses to a global survey over a 10-year period ending in 2018.

“I’m very comfortable identifying my disability, but I don’t have much choice because it’s an external physical disability,” says Rusch, who uses a power wheelchair. However, he understands how an employee with an invisible disability might be reluctant to disclose it because of concerns about how a manager or co-worker could react.

In 2021, 4 percent of 43,561 PwC partners and employees self-identified as having a disability, up from 2.6 percent of its 45,234 partners and employees in 2020, according to the 2021 PwC Purpose Report. However, the number of employees with disabilities is likely higher because not everyone chooses to self-identify, says Nesa Mangal, PwC firmwide communications manager.

At tech company Intel, 1.4 percent of its 110,600 employees self-identified as having a disability in 2020, says Dawn Jones, chief diversity and inclusion officer and vice president of social impact. Intel’s goal is to increase that number to 10 percent of the workforce by 2030. 

“This is an important goal for us as we work toward an inclusive and psychologically safe environment where employees are empowered to bring their whole self to work and succeed,” Jones says.

Address Inaccurate Perceptions

Paula Jenkins, a project manager and executive chef at The Galley Dining Hall in Charleston, S.C., says that “because of first impressions, people with disabilities probably don’t always get the benefit of the doubt that [other people] get, especially if their disability is visible.”

Jenkins manages 120 employees, about 90 percent of whom have a disability. The Galley contracts with Palmetto Goodwill for employment services and makes it a priority to hire individuals with disabilities.

To educate her staff about their colleagues’ abilities, Jenkins asks pairs of employees to complete certain tasks—not so one person can “teach” the other, but so each can see what the other is capable of doing. 

“The parts of the job are intertwined,” Jenkins says. “You do your part; they do their part.” This typically demonstrates to staff that each team member has the skills and talent required to do the job, she says.

Have Candid Conversations

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations so that qualified people with disabilities can perform essential job functions, unless an accommodation would create an undue hardship for the business.

It’s incumbent on a manager to explore options that might make even a seemingly difficult accommodation possible. For example, if an accommodation seems to pose a financial hardship, the employer could look to outside agencies for potential funding and investigate possible tax credits that might assist in fulfilling an employee’s request. Employers also are encouraged to be creative and determine whether an alternative accommodation would meet the employee’s needs.

Jenkins coaches her workers with disabilities to help their colleagues better understand their needs, especially if they have an invisible disability. “For instance,” she says, “someone with autism who finds it difficult to look people in the eye when speaking could tell colleagues, ‘I have autism, and it causes me to not look directly at you, but I’m paying attention to you and I will respond.’ ”

However, managers should never ask employees to talk about their disabilities in a group meeting. “By doing that, you are creating an environment that highlights how that person is different, and you’re telling the team they should interact with that person differently,” Rusch says.


‘Flexibility is something everyone needs, not just people with disabilities.’

Don’t Make Assumptions

Managers also shouldn’t make assumptions about the long-term career goals of an employee with a disability, or about what that person is capable of doing, Rusch says. For instance, a manager who assumes it would be too difficult for an employee with a disability to be involved in a project that requires travel could potentially deprive that individual of an opportunity for promotion. 

“Make sure you understand what the employee wants,” he says.

When managers speak with employees about their career goals, Rusch adds, those conversations should cover the same basic information regardless of whether the employee has a disability. Questions to ask include: 

  • What do you want to accomplish in the next five years? 
  • What types of opportunities are you looking for? 
  • What skills do you need for promotion?
  • What training do you need to build those skills?

One way to be considerate of the needs of employees with disabilities without making assumptions is to ask everyone on a project team to share what type of flexibility they may need, Rusch suggests. 

“Flexibility is something everyone needs, not just people with disabilities,” he says.

Employees with disabilities are frequently pigeonholed into a specific role because it’s something they do well, and they might do it better than others on the team. But these employees may want to learn new skills or expand their roles, Jenkins says. She encourages employees who show an interest in taking on new responsibilities to test things out. Maybe they serve in a new role for a week, or maybe they perform a new task one day a week for six weeks. 

“The goal is to build their self-confidence,” Jenkins says, “and help them try something new.”   

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

Illustration by Marc Rosenthal for HR Magazine.


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