Leveraging Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: A Guide for Employers

As more jobs are supported by technology, old barriers become obsolete and companies can create workplace cultures and environments that are more equitable, safe and supportive for leveraging the talent pool of people with disabilities.

Over 1.3 billion people, or 17% of the global population, live with some form of disability. Individuals with disabilities are the third largest market segment in the U.S., comprising 1 of 5 Americans: bigger as a group than Gen X, Hispanics, African Americans or Asian Americans. The CDC reports that 25% of adults, or 1 in 4 people, live with a cognitive, physical or emotional disability.

Yet the disability employment gap is huge: Kessler Foundation workforce participation data indicates 77% people without disabilities participate in the labor force relative to 33% with disabilities. In Europe, the employment rate among those with disabilities is 47% compared to 67% among those without a disability. In the UK, the employment rate among people with disabilities is 52% relative to 82% among people without. 

And while 90% of companies say diversity is a priority, only 4% of companies include hiring people with disabilities as part of that initiative. The exclusion of people with disabilities from employment has catalyzed the WEF Valuable 500 initiative - companies focused on closing the disability employment gap. 

Disability Inclusion: Advantage and (Perceived) Barriers 

The Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage report revealed a strong advantage in financial performance for companies excelling in disability inclusion: they exhibited 28% higher revenue, double the net income, and 30% higher economic profit margins over a four-year analysis. They were two to four times more likely to have higher shareholder returns than peer companies, stronger if they’d been increasing inclusion efforts over time.

More benefits of disability inclusion include: 

  • increased innovation from talent that had to be creative, problem-solve, persist and experiment to adapt in life
  • lower absenteeism and greater retention
  • workplace adaptations that benefit everyone
  • a potential overall boost of productivity, inclusivity and retention that is spurred by inclusion of non-disabled individuals
  • positive impacts on reputation
  • diversification of thought
  • new insights into a massive market (in the US, people with disabilities represent a $1 billion+ market segment)

One reason for the disability employment gap is employers don’t realize the scope of untapped talent and potential benefits from hiring people with disabilities. Also, stereotypes and misconceptions contribute strongly to exclusion.

People with disabilities experience unequal access to job opportunities - disclosing a physical disability halved the call-back rate of applicants in one Canadian study. Employers underestimate the work capacity, productivity and performance of employees with disabilities while over-estimating the costs of making reasonable adjustments and workplace accommodations. Not only do people with disabilities face negative stereotypes and projections, but peer discomfort/unfamiliarity and unfair treatment also lead to unnecessary barriers

While 84% of employers in the UK believed disabled people contribute high value to the workplace, a lack of resources and funding were also cited as obstacles. The vast misconception that making accommodations to employee people with disabilities is too expensive relative to the ROI of employing them has been debunked by research showing that 58% of accommodations cost nothing at all to make while the typical cost of other adaptions is only $500.

Disability Inclusion: A Universal Mindset is Needed

People with disabilities are a widely heterogenous group - including developmental, physical and mental impairments. Disabilities (which substantially limits movements, senses or life activities) can be visible or obvious (wheelchair user) but are also often invisible or hidden (such as arthritis) with needs as varied as the reasons for them. 

When employees disclose disabilities, employers are required by law to provide accommodations and protect them from discrimination. But considering the potential risks, many people with disabilities do not disclose or are reluctant, and they are not under obligation to do so - even if accommodations would serve them. A survey found 1 in 8 disabled workers did not disclose their disability status, 38% out of fear their employer would doubt their competence.

When employers fail to proactively take disability inclusion into specific consideration, they make ableist-based decisions and commit unintended basic oversights that exclude people with disabilities by default or set them at a disadvantage to participate - whether it’s how you communicate a message, the size of font, a lack of flexibility with work hours, or an inaccessible location for a company event. 

A disability inclusion mindset must be broad and considerate, because more employees have needs than will say so: 1 in 4 people will benefit from the adjustments that create a generally open and accessible workplace with positive spillovers on others. 

Like with any form of inclusion, disability inclusion means creating an accessible workplace environment where people feel welcomed, seen and valued for who they are, without having to assimilate and are given the opportunities to participate and fulfill their potential. Disability inclusion requires curiosity around how your workplace is directly and indirectly excluding people with disabilities from equal opportunities. While disability gaps very significantly across companies, they’re highly diminished in workplaces where all employees indicate high levels of company fairness and responsiveness (more inclusive cultures). 

Shaping Your Workplace for Disability Inclusion

With the increase of remote and hybrid work spurred on by the pandemic, accommodating individual workplace needs has become normalized and generalized. For example, GSK switched from saying “making accommodations,” a disability-oriented connotation, to the cultured-oriented statement of “being accommodating.” 

Employers have quickly learned to creatively accommodate varied employee needs. Add in the reality that more and more jobs are focused on or mediated through technology. With this momentum, old barriers become obsolete and companies can create workplace cultures and environments that are more equitable, safe and supportive for leveraging the talent pool of people with disabilities. 

Here are some core ways to create a disability inclusive organizational culture: 

  • Recruitment: Consider both basic and advanced level approaches to removing unconscious bias from your hiring processes. Write the vision of disability employment into your recruitment policy. Ensure that job language and imagery is clear, free of jargon and inclusive. Use alternative recruitment methods (especially for neurodiverse hires) and expert agencies to support specific job searches. Overtly encourage individuals with disabilities to apply to jobs and iterate that accommodations can be made. Make ads, application methods and interviewing approaches accessible. Use blind resume/CV review and hiring techniques. Provide upfront information that allows candidates time to prepare for interview needs. Evaluate candidates equally with formats such as structured interviews and job-relevant sample tests. Intentionally recruit interns with disabilities into internship programs. 

  • Flexibility in Work: Increased flexibility around when, where and how people work is popular among many employees and conducive to becoming more disability inclusive. 94% of disabled workers in the UK who worked from home during the pandemic wished to continue at least in part. Part-time work expands employment possibilities for some people with disabilities. Other considerations - such as schedule flexibility, taking more breaks, condensing work days - can help to meet diverse needs such as managing pain or physical and mental health conditions. Another aspect of designing disability-inclusive jobs is job carving: customizing core responsibilities to suit a person’s needs or abilities, while having the ones they are not adept at shared within the team. Consider someone having difficulty presenting but being able to write excellent analysis and co-ownership of a report. Equally, job autonomy allows disabled professionals to complete tasks and develop solutions as best suits their abilities while still meeting the needs of the team. Job guidance can focus on what success looks like and what outcomes are needed, not how things are to be done.

  • Organization Wide Training and Communication: Creating a disability inclusive culture involves creating awareness among all employees. Like any form of inclusion, disability inclusion must begin with solid and visible leadership commitment, so getting leadership onboard on the organizational value and business case upfront is critical. Training sessions, especially for managers, can build a bridge of understanding around the challenges faced by people with disabilities in the workplace, reduce stigma, and empower and inform on how to facilitate inclusion. Including testimonials and personal stories from professionals with disabilities can help to counter false stereotypes that feed bias and give valuable insight into support. Training can help educate employees on avoiding inappropriate language or holding back co-workers with disabilities from advancement through ‘unwanted paternalism' or making assumptions. The more disability inclusive you become, the more your organization can normalize success stories and provide perspective-changing opportunities like mutual mentoring. 

  • Proactively Support Individual Needs and Reasonable Adjustments: From recruitment to onboarding to day-to-day job management, consulting individuals with disabilities on their needs is important - including in decision making. Employers and managers should proactively solicit and support expressed needs without creating unwanted attention or coming from a problem-orientation. Enrolling experts and job coaches that specialize in hiring and retaining workers with disabilities can be valuable in providing resources, refining approaches and identifying blindspots in making your workplace more disability inclusive. Equal pay and benefits is an inclusion no-brainer. One-on-one meetings are necessary to assess reasonable adjustments to support individuals to work more successfully, but illustrating the range of possibilities helps. Examples are ergonomic equipment, assistive technology such as a text-to-speech device, scribes, and adjusted completion times. It’s also important that employees have a safe place to go where they can speak without threat of negative consequences about any barriers to inclusion they are facing.

  • General Workplace Design and Accessibility: Beyond individual needs, it’s possible to audit your workplace and proactively create a more inclusive work environment, leveraging Universal Design and the seven principles centered around simplicity, flexibility, accessibility and efficiency to make the environment more inclusive for all people. The kinds of general adaptations may include widening doorways and entrances, providing ramps, adjusting spacing of workstations, providing larger computer screens with larger default screen text, providing assistive technology and distributing information in multiple or different accessible formats. 

  • Measure and Track Progress: As with any inclusion objective, it’s essential to understand the baseline of where you are now, and commit to a robust approach to track the progress made within the organization and the organizational culture. Individuals with disabilities should not only be consulted in planning, prioritizing and activating adjustments, but it’s also important to measure the changes in diversity at various levels and consult on their experiences of inclusion. 

Organizations that take the effort to proactively become disability inclusive stand to benefit hugely from leveraging one of the most untapped talent pools out there.

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Diversity & Inclusion Scientific Framework

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