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Disability Inclusion May Have a Racial Bias

Black man in wheelchair on computer at work

Employees of color with disabilities are less likely than their white counterparts to receive workplace accommodations, according to a survey of 5,000 people in the U.S., more than 1,500 of whom said they have a current or recurring health issue, disability or challenge that impacts their major life activities.

The report, by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), found that 33 percent of employees with disabilities who identified as Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC) had their workplace accommodation requests met by their employer. Comparatively, 43 percent of employees with disabilities who identified as white had their accommodation requests met at work.

While those with a disability face distinct marginalization on average across society, people with disabilities “who are also members of other marginalized populations are even more disadvantaged—evidence, in part, of structural racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ stigma and other systemic inequities in the U.S.,” the report found.

Overall workplace inclusion levels for people with disabilities also varied by race:

  • 67 percent of white men felt included.
  • 63 percent of BIPOC men felt included.
  • 62.5 percent of white women felt included.
  • 58 percent of BIPOC women felt included.

Craig Leen, an attorney with K&L Gates in Washington, D.C., and a former director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, said that failing to meet disability requests for a group based on race could be seen as a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“That is why it is always a good compliance practice to include the concept of intersectionality in equal employment opportunity programs,” he said.

Discrimination Influences Decision to Disclose Disabilities

BIPOC employees with disabilities are also more likely to experience harassment and discrimination, the BCG report found:

  • About 34 percent of all people with disabilities reported experiencing discrimination and harassment at work.
  • Among all employees with disabilities, about 39 percent of BIPOC women and 41 percent of BIPOC men experienced harassment and discrimination, compared with 27 percent of white men and 33 percent of white women.

Many people with disabilities do not disclose their condition due to fear of discrimination. Research shows that people with disabilities who did not disclose such information on a job application but later opened up about their disability status at work were met with discriminatory behaviors, such as inappropriate questions and assumptions about their capabilities.

Furthermore, a 2023 SHRM study found that nearly half (47 percent) of employees with invisible disabilities, such as autism and ADHD, have not disclosed their conditions to their employers.

Ariel Simms, president and CEO of RespectAbility, a remote nonprofit dedicated to advancing opportunities for people with disabilities, said that a workplace where employees with disabilities are reluctant to disclose their condition can lead to high rates of turnover.

“Even if someone doesn't identify as a marginalized group, how the company treats them can tarnish company culture and lead to negative reviews from staff,” Simms said. “They can face bad reviews, making it harder to hire more diverse talent.”

5 Tips to Boost Disability Inclusion

Research by the Job Accommodation Network shows that nearly half of accommodations for employees with disabilities cost nothing. A separate study found that organizations that implement disability-inclusive policies and practices tend to outperform their peers financially.

Leen said that employers should conduct self-audits to ensure disability accommodations are being handled correctly. HR should also identify any disparities in granting accommodations based on race, gender and other protected characteristics.

He noted that such audits ensure that “all people with disabilities are receiving the support and accommodations needed” and that “individuals are not being left out based on other protected bases.”

The BCG report offered five recommendations to enhance workplace inclusion efforts for employees of all races with disabilities:

  • Offer a wide range of employee-centric programs, such as paid parental leave, flexible working arrangements, and education opportunities.
  • Provide opportunities for mentorship, which give less-tenured employees access to guidance, support and advice from more experienced colleagues and increase feelings of inclusion.
  • Meet requests for workplace accommodations, including needed equipment or software, flexible working arrangements, or adjustments to a physical environment.
  • Educate direct managers on the needs of employees with disabilities.
  • Build employee resource groups with an intersectional approach to address the needs, challenges and experiences of employees of color who have disabilities.

Simms said organizations should also consider highlighting the experiences and contributions of individuals from underrepresented communities to create a more inclusive culture. For example, RespectAbility has featured Jewish people with disabilities from other organizations to speak to the workforce about their overall experiences.

“If you get the culture right, people will feel comfortable talking about their experiences and identities,” Simms said. “Employees who can be their authentic selves are happier at work and perform better.”


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