By Donald Thompson, WRAL Tech Wire
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and this year’s theme, selected by the U.S. Department of Labor, is “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. By creating diverse, equitable and inclusive work cultures, we open the door for more people to do great work and move the country forward.
At this moment in our economic recovery, all industries are in need of great employees, yet people with disabilities are still twice as likely to be unemployed and also more likely to be underemployed compared to those without a disability. 26% of all American adults — or 61 million people — have a disability, but as of August 2021, only 35.6% of people with disabilities who are of prime working age (ages 16 through 64) are actively employed, compared to 76.8% of people without disabilities in the same age range.
In other words, there is a tremendous, untapped talent market of capable professionals who are ready to fill your open roles, once you commit to disability inclusion. It’s also important to point out that inclusion benefits the whole workforce, not only people with disabilities, since research shows that a robust disability inclusion program makes it easier for all employees to perform to their highest potential. And, companies that commit to disability inclusion have, on average, 28% higher revenue, double the net income, and 30% higher economic profit margins than their peers.
How can you get started toward a more disability-inclusive culture? First, learn best practices for respectfully communicating and interacting with people who have disabilities. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to find the best ways to lead every one of your employees, but it’s not uncommon for people to feel uncomfortable and unsure as they begin to practice disability etiquette.
The overarching point to keep in mind is that etiquette is less about doing the right thing, because that can vary from person to person, and more about making individuals feel comfortable and respected. Two great resources I’ve consulted on my own journey to become a more inclusive leader are understood.org and the DC Office of Disability Rights. Below, I’ll share a few of their guidelines for disability etiquette and ways you can put them into practice this month.
Create a safe space for conversations
Employees are not required to disclose a disability and may fear that, when they do, they will be seen as unreliable or receiving special treatment. While you shouldn’t inquire about a disability if the person hasn’t openly shared it with you, you can create a space where employees feel supported and able to ask for what they need to be most productive. If you ask employees to self-identify their disabilities, conditions, invisible illnesses, learning differences, and more, make sure you also explain why their sharing is important — because you are committed to providing what they need for success.
Build a culture of trust and transparency by speaking and acting with empathy and by personalizing your leadership style to each person’s strengths and needs. Some employees may thrive with a regimented daily plan of tasks and priorities while others may thrive with flexible work schedules and self-set deadlines. Encourage each person to reflect on their own working style and name the things they need to be excellent.
Don’t make assumptions
People’s needs and preferences for treatment may differ, even among those with identical conditions. It may be tempting to assume you know what someone with a disability can or cannot do, but only they know that for certain. As a guiding principle, remember this phrase from the movement for disability rights: Nothing About Us Without Us.
Always start by asking the person for their input on what will help them be most productive. Sometimes, a simple adaptation to their workspace or work schedule can make a big difference in a person’s productivity as well as increase their feelings of belonging and trust.
Ask before you help
Should you offer to help an employee with a disability? If you’re not sure, ask them. As Rebekah Taussig writes in Time magazine, well-intentioned people can often overstep personal boundaries by offering assistance before asking if their help is necessary or even wanted. Respect each person’s bodily autonomy and privacy, and accept that they will ask for what they need. Even if you think you are trying to help, you should never touch a person or their assistive devices without their expressed permission.
Before you rush to assist someone with a disability, Taussig suggests you pay attention to the other person’s body language: “What signals are they giving you? What expression do you see on their face? Even if this isn’t intuitive for you, pay attention to their eyes — are they avoiding your gaze or looking toward you like they want to engage? If you really can’t tell, you can ask, but if someone says, “No thank you,” listen.”
Be gracious with yourself and others
As a forward-thinking leader who is trying to create an inclusive work culture, it’s common to feel like you may be judged for any slight misstep. You’re going to make mistakes, but don’t stop trying. Be open to learning, admit what you don’t know, and keep moving forward. By doing so, you will create a culture of trust for your employees and set the stage for real change.
When someone asks for an accommodation to perform their job, it shows they feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work. And, you benefit from their increased productivity, collaboration, problem solving, and decision-making skills. By working together to remove barriers, you will enrich and improve the workplace for everyone.
If you aren’t already investing in disability inclusion as a strategic imperative, this month offers a great chance to start your engines and learn the business benefits of hiring more people who have disabilities. Reach out to my team at The Diversity Movement or our partners at Ablr, who can help you get started toward a more accessible, inclusive workplace.
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