Why Disability Inclusion Strengthens Your Company and How to Achieve It

Anthony Santa Maria

Anthony Santa Maria

“Nothing about us without us.” This is the global slogan for the disability rights movement. It means that nothing should be decided for people with disabilities without their presence, participation, and inclusion. 

While the movement has achieved a great deal of progress since its founding in the 1960s, people with disabilities still face many challenges in the corporate world. They face exclusion from decision-making and also from consideration within workplace diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice initiatives. 

In fact, according to a report from the Return On Disability Group, while 90% of companies claim to prioritize diversity, only 4% consider disability in those initiatives. This is a staggering statistic considering the CDC’s estimate that 1 in 4 U.S. adults—61 million people—live with a  cognitive, physical, or emotional disability that impacts major life activities. 

Companies cannot consider themselves truly inclusive if they continue down this path. And it hurts them from far more than just a PR angle. To remedy the issue, business leaders must first understand the challenges people with disabilities face in the workplace. And then take concrete, informed actions to better recruit and retain a truly diverse workforce.

Diagnosing the Problem: Obstacles to Disability Inclusion in the Workplace

For many people with disabilities, the obstacles begin before they even get the job or enter an office. Even the application process can be extremely exclusionary. Example issue areas can include: 

  • The format of the application
  • Online accessibility
  • The language used in job descriptions
  • Requirements for physical tasks (even when the role does not demand them)
  • In-person interview requirements (even when remote is allowed)  

These items are often coded and hard to detect by the average, well-meaning person. They could even reflect an unconscious bias that needs to be unpacked.

Even when a candidate successfully navigates the application process and gets the job, a lack of accessibility presents major challenges. This can range from holding a work event in an inaccessible location to forcing people to quickly read small text in a presentation. Careful consideration of these obstacles is especially relevant now that many companies require at least a partial return to work. 

Just as harmfully, people with disabilities often face microaggressions and a general lack of understanding from organization leadership and colleagues. While this is true for members of any underrepresented group, it can be more pronounced for people with disabilities who are often excluded or glossed over in DEIJ trainings.

Taking Accountability: How Leaders Can be Advocates for Disability Inclusion in the Workplace

In light of the challenges people with disabilities face, there are many ways an empathetic, emotionally intelligent leader can show up as an advocate and ally for disability inclusion in the workplace. Here are five actionable activities leaders can do to create a culture where people with disabilities can thrive:

 1. Collect employee experience data on people with disabilities

Research and data can help you build sturdy foundations for an intentional, high-impact strategy. Consider including questions on future employee pulse surveys that help you understand the following points:

  • What policies, practices, and activities contribute to inequities? 
  • Do disabled people feel valued as their whole selves, including their differences?

Just like any other employee, people with disabilities want to be valued and appreciated for what they bring to the table. In this evaluation, leaders should be particularly cautious that messaging and practices do not communicate pity or tokenism.

2. Educate employees on disability inclusion

This can look like making sure your current DEIJ training adequately centers disability, or finding additional training that does. It’s particularly important for anyone involved in hiring to consider accessibility throughout the recruitment process. 

Education about disability inclusion can lead to innovation and can help companies connect with a severely under-tapped talent pool. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is higher than for the rest of the US population. 

Ernst & Young, for example, created a specific hiring program focused on autistic and otherwise neurodiverse people. Hiren Shukla, the executive who founded the initiative, said EY has saved over 3.5 million hours on work process optimization thanks to its Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence. 

3. Create Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for employees with disabilities 

ERGs not only provide support for employees with shared characteristics or life experiences, but play an outsize role in wellness, community advocacy, and building dialogue across an organization.

For people with disabilities, they are crucial for creating dedicated time for discussing disability inclusion in the workplace and encouraging leadership to engage with the subject. Also, since many disabilities are invisible (and only 39% of employees with disabilities disclose them to their manager), this can literally create visibility and transparency within the company.

4. Make sure physical accommodations are in place and accessible 

This is a great example of when to be proactive rather than reactive. When leaders are proactive about supporting employees with disabilities, it can remove the burden of needing to ask. Information such as the location of accessible bathrooms should be easily available to everyone in an organization. Digital resources, like login information for a company’s mental health app subscription, should also be readily available. 

Presenting this information in a centralized way, like in an employee onboarding packet or a dedicated section of your company’s intranet can improve access and use.  

5. Consider your company’s products and services

If applicable, reflect on the products, goods, and services your company creates and how it can better serve and support people with disabilities. Not only is it the right thing to do, but being inclusive is a great way to attract talent, build an authentic brand, and have a more resilient business.

Not to mention, having more diverse employees at a company also leads to more diversity of thought. The lived experience of people with disabilities can lead to otherwise overlooked business breakthroughs For example, Microsoft created a captioning feature on its products because their own employees demanded it, and it has exploded in popularity on its Teams app since the start of the pandemic. 

Leading With Empathy as We Face New Challenges

In the past few years, we’ve seen enormous strides in how business leaders are prioritizing DEI initiatives. As of July 2022, every single Fortune 100 company has DEI initiatives outlined on their respective websites. 

Yet many companies face increasingly worrisome talent shortages, exacerbated by the pandemic and the still-unknown long-term effects of COVID and long COVID. Corporate and DEI leaders simply cannot afford to continue ignoring people with disabilities, both for moral and economic reasons. 

Most importantly, we can all heed the “nothing about us without us” call to lead with empathy and action.

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