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Employers Can Do More for Workers with Disabilities

A woman in a wheelchair shaking hands with a man in an office.

​Labor market data shows that people with disabilities are back to work at pre-pandemic employment levels after being disproportionately laid off during the pandemic. But these workers remain a largely untapped talent pool, still seek to feel fully included in the workplace, and contend with a lack of accessibility and other accommodations.

As National Disability Employment Awareness Month winds down, SHRM Online spoke with Julie Sowash, executive director of Disability Solutions, a nonprofit that works with employers to develop recruitment and engagement strategies for disabled workers. She discussed employment prospects for people with disabilities, how employers can build disability-inclusive workplaces, and how to combat ableism in practice and language.

SHRM Online: What is your take on the employment picture for people with disabilities as we come out of the pandemic?

Sowash: The pandemic obviously led to a huge shift in the employment landscape for everyone, but it had a unique impact on the disability community. The "newfound" awareness that so many jobs could be effectively performed remotely opened a huge swath of opportunities that hadn't existed before for disabled talent. It normalized remote work and allowed for more companies to offer remote or hybrid working opportunities for roles that had never existed in this way before. It also created a situation in which everyone was able to build empathy around the idea of accommodating and making shifts in workplace practices to adjust to changing needs and capabilities. The disability community was already particularly adept at this, given that we have to do it so often, largely living in a society that isn't built for us. We are experts in this type of adaptation because, in many cases, we have to be. Additionally, as so many of us have had to confront mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic, a much broader conversation about how this plays out in the workplace has come to the forefront in many companies.

My hope is that as we continue to return to normalcy, these lessons learned remain present in our consciousness and actions. I hope that we, as employers and managers, continue to be flexible in the way that we think about job requirements and how they can be altered to fit a person's needs. And also, as employees and co-workers, I hope that we hold space for patience and acceptance with our peers, recognizing that we are all humans with distinct needs and capabilities, but we all deserve and are capable of thriving in the right workplace and with the right support.

SHRM Online: What motivates employers to create a disability-inclusive workplace?

Sowash: Disability is the only underrepresented minority group that anyone can join at any time. Approximately 1 in 4 Americans live with a disability and at least 70 percent of disabilities are nonapparent. So, the fact is that whether you know it or not, you are already employing people with disabilities. These [workers], as well as all other nondisabled employees, deserve to feel safe to bring their whole selves to work. And this means being unafraid to disclose a disability and seek any support they may need in the workplace. This can only happen in a disability-inclusive workplace.

The last few years, we have seen many companies make pledges to create more-inclusive workplaces for minority groups, including people with a variety of racial, ethnic, gender and religious backgrounds. Disability is a dimension of diversity that is often left out of these initiatives, which is ironic given that it intersects with every single one. Disability does not discriminate and, in fact, affects some underrepresented populations more broadly than others. Black populations, for example, have slightly higher rates of disability than white populations, and LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming individuals have higher rates of disability than their cisgender, heterosexual peers. Therefore, to create a truly inclusive workplace requires a consideration of disability.

The disability community is a largely untapped talent pool, and, despite recent diversity efforts, many companies still are not actively hiring people with disabilities. Even companies with robust diversity-focused talent attraction strategies are not including disability as a dimension of diversity in their hiring efforts. However, people with disabilities are as diverse in our disabilities as we are in our skills, education and experiences. The right person with a disability can thrive in any role and contribute invaluably to your company.

SHRM Online: What's the biggest barrier you find employers have in building a disability-inclusive workplace?

Sowash: The biggest barrier for many employers is the "this is how we've always done it" mentality and the ableism that fuels it. The truth is that even with the passage of policy like the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], our society remains largely inaccessible to many disabled people due to structural, physical and, perhaps most pernicious, attitudinal barriers.

These attitudinal barriers are largely the result of ableism, which is "a system that places value on people's bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normality, intelligence, excellence, desirability and productivity," according to Talila "TL" Lewis. These types of implicit biases exist in all of us due to the societal factors with which we've grown up and often manifest themselves unintentionally.

However, in order to begin the journey toward disability inclusion, it's critical to recognize ableism and begin to identify ways that it shows up in our workplaces. For example, it would be an implicitly ableist decision to select an inaccessible venue for a company event, award ceremony or holiday gathering. Perhaps the event has always, to this point, been held in a certain space simply due to its size, but it has stairs to enter and no closed-captioning options for overhead sound projection. Selecting a new venue that would allow all employees to participate fully would be a highly inclusive choice. True inclusion is about going beyond access—getting into a space—and considering how to ensure that everyone can benefit equally from what is offered in that space.

Another way we can begin to combat ableism is in our language. Consider phrases such as "that's crazy," "I'm a little OCD" or "I don't even think of you as disabled." These statements are often made innocently and with no intention of malice. However, they are forms of everyday ableism that can erode a disabled person's sense of safety and belonging. Working to eliminate such language from our vernacular can go a long way in fostering inclusion.

SHRM Online: What are a few steps employers can take to attract and retain workers with disabilities?

Sowash: To begin attracting and hiring talent with disabilities, first consider your employer brand: Do you have imagery of people with disabilities on your careers site? Including people with disabilities on your careers site and in your imagery helps to send the message that people with disabilities are a valuable and valued part of your workplace.

Do you demonstrate a value-based—as opposed to charity-based—perspective of disability? When discussing disability in employee stories or in company value statements, opt for the lens of value as opposed to charity. Hiring people with disabilities is capitalizing on a valuable talent pool. It is not charity.

Additionally, take time to consider what your company does to support disabled employees. Do you have a strong people and business resource group focused on disability? Are there disability champions already creating safe spaces for employees in your company? If yes, evaluate how you are promoting these aspects of your culture to potential candidates. And if no, think about starting to put some of these opportunities into place.

Next, think about your systems and processes. Though many disabled employees don't need accommodations, having an easy and understandable process to get one allows employees to feel safe in asking for what they need to complete their work at the highest level. Further, ensure that managers are well-versed in this process and can direct employees appropriately if they need to request an accommodation.

Finally, consider running an internal self-identification campaign to allow employees with disabilities to share their stories and demonstrate their distinct value as both employees and as co-workers. This creates a sense of safety and humanity within your culture and can do wonders for reducing fear and stigma that is often associated with a disability.


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