Imagine this scenario. An employer offers remote work to accommodate the needs of an employee who has autism. The support stops there. The employee now has to identify what equipment they will need for their home office setup. They have no help identifying critical tax breaks to support their financial well-being. The employee then struggles to be heard in group settings because teams across the company have never had to think about offering a diverse set of options for providing input in collaborative settings. The employee quits. The employer loses an incredible talent.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Employees with disabilities have high retention rates, but barriers to accessing work opportunities either discourage or outright prevent people who have disabilities from gaining employment. A strong inclusive strategy asks employers to go beyond accommodation to come up with proactive policies that maintain accessibility and foster environments that truly incorporate people living with disabilities.
ADA Regulations Are Just a Baseline
Over 1 billion people globally and 26% of American adults live with a physical or mental disability. People’s experiences with disability are vastly different, and it’s incredibly common for companies to miss the mark despite setting good intentions on inclusivity. The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) was implemented to regulate public spaces and the workforce to prevent discrimination and provide a better pathway to justice when it occurs. Despite this, our world remains widely inaccessible for people who experience disabilities.
While the potential for making wrong decisions on inclusion is a scary prospect — not just for the potential legal ramifications — it’s important to do the work and share the effort across your organization. Workplaces are required to meet the needs of employees with disabilities who self-identify and request accommodations. However, an accommodating environment doesn’t necessarily mean an accessible, inclusive environment.
ADA regulations are a baseline for expanding your workplace accessibility strategies. However, people with disabilities still widely face hiring discrimination and uninclusive workplaces despite the regulations that are meant to keep them safe. If a company’s inclusive strategy stops at accommodation without thinking critically about ongoing accessibility, a multitude of barriers arise.
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Avoid Coming Up Short
While no two approaches to disability inclusion will be the same, there are plenty of best practices and tools offered by institutions that have pioneered data-informed policies and programs. These companies are able to tap into the vast benefits of a more diverse workforce, and all companies can benefit from following their example.
Without a one-size-fits-all strategy for inclusion, start by assessing your company and its culture. Programs such as employee resource groups have the potential to go a long way towards creating safe spaces for your employees to share their experience at a large company. However, at a small company or companies that are generally homogeneous, employee resource groups are riskier and can create silos that separate your employees from one another. Collaborate with leaders across your organization to get an idea of the type of framework that works best for you.
Whichever direction you go to get started, communicating with intention and sensitivity is key. Develop your communications standards to put policies forward that create a safe foundation to work from, and identify patterns that need work within your organization. Disability is not a monolith, so it’s important to include all employees — both with and without disabilities — to share in the educational process. When you have implemented a policy, continued training sessions can communicate those changes to your company.
Working Through Shame Together
Talking about how different people experience workplace discrimination simply because of who they are is challenging — and discomfort is inevitable. Workplaces need to make it okay to talk about our differences and work together to make the workplace a more accessible place for everyone, regardless of disability status or any other facet of identity.
We all experience differences of privilege as an inherent feature of our society but having important conversations about privilege is challenging for many. A lot of people who experience privilege leave conversations on diversity thinking that they are the problem. The office is too often steered by dynamics of shame and we tend not to talk about the barriers we face or empathize with others until it’s too late.
By making a concerted effort to make an inclusive workplace, we create opportunities to lean into discomfort, and we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to learn to do better by each other.