Disability Inclusion in the Workplace

By: Louis Orslene, MPIA, MSW, CPDM, JAN CoDirector

Disability Inclusion in the Workplace

There are plenty of reasons to become disability aware in the workplace. Dignity is one reason of course. Each human being is endowed with inalienable rights and their dignity should be honored. But beyond honoring one's human dignity, there are plenty of other reasons.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 56 million people identify as a "person with a disability." Notice the language; I will address this later. While this number may include many young people with disabilities who have been empowered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1975) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990), it does not include, for instance, many of the 11,000 people who are reaching retirement age every day in the U.S. These baby boomers just can't see as well or hear as well as they used to, but do not identify as people with disabilities.

Another group not identifying as people with disabilities are tens of thousands of wounded warriors. Even after losing their hearing or an arm in an IUD blast, many service injured men and women do not consider themselves part of the disabled population. Thus, with huge groups of the U.S. population having a disability, chronic health condition, or impairment, disability is becoming more of the norm than we typically think.

Corporations are definitely taking note of people with disabilities as we hear more and more often about disability as a large and growing market segment. The language of "access for all" and "universal accessibility" has entered the business lexicon and business is responding by creating accessible products and services. And yes, part of this trend to create products and services that the greatest amount of people can access and use is being driven by regulations. But there is no doubt designing products for everyone from the youngest to the oldest of us with varying abilities makes good business sense.

Being disability aware begins by understanding both the human capital and the market reasons for moving your company further along on what I like to call the inclusion continuum. And becoming more inclusive of people with disabilities and moving further along on this continuum requires knowledge of the challenges people with disabilities face at work. For instance, an employee who is blind is challenged to read meeting notes if the notes are in an inaccessible format for that person's assistive technology, or an employee who is deaf is faced with the challenge of hearing what is being said at a company training, or an employee with autism cannot understand the nonverbal nuances of discussions during team meetings.

I often speak of five ways to know if a company is inclusive of people with disabilities. These include:

  1. Accessible office and office technology. Can an applicant who is blind use your online applicant tracking system? Or, can someone who uses a wheelchair access the employee lunchroom?
  2. Inclusive policies and practices. Do you have an accommodation policy? Are employees aware of this policy? How about flexible schedules? Or telework?
  3. Inclusive public relations and marketing. Do people with disabilities see themselves featured in your advertisements or product labels?
  4. External partnerships with disability-related services. Do you consult with the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) for technical assistance and guidance on the ADA and workplace accommodations. Are you a member of one of the many business peer-to-peer organizations such as the US Business Leadership Network (US BLN), the National Business Disability Council (NBDC), and the National Industry Liaison Group?
  5. Inclusive ethos – The character of your business is reflected in its culture. Is your business known as being diverse and open to the needs of employees, particularly people with disabilities? And, is this reflected in the language used in your workplace?

Workplace language is one of the most obvious indicators of the character of a workplace. Do employees use disparaging terms like "retarded" for someone who is intellectually disabled, or "crazy" for someone who has a mental health challenges? Language sets the tone of your business culture and can discourage people with disabilities from either seeking employment or staying employed at your business.

In today's diverse and inclusive workplaces, the language being used is called "people first language." When referring to people with disabilities, try to always speak of the "person" first before any mention of a disability or chronic health condition. Understand disability is one part or one attribute of a person and does not define the person. And always remember, if it is not essential to the conversation, why raise the issue of disability at all?

At times during presentations, I overhear audience members saying people first language is just political correctness. I disagree. Language is constantly evolving. New words are regularly added to dictionaries. Remember in the 1980's when everything was about paradigm shifts? Now it is all about baselines, metrics, and big data.

So beside language, what other changes can you make to insure your company is moving in the right direction on the inclusion continuum?

If you have hired a person with an obvious disability or the person has disclosed a disability, being inclusive would mean orienting the employee to the facility and equipment while assessing what is and what is not accessible, orienting the person to the emergency evacuation procedures, and respecting the privacy by not making office small talk about the person's disability.

Or perhaps you are planning an office training. Send out a notice in advance of the training letting participants know accommodations are available, and if requested, be ready to provide the meeting agenda and information to be shared during the meeting in various formats (Braille, large print, etc.). If an employee who is blind responds that he will be participating in the meeting, you will want to describe slides if using a PowerPoint presentation. It is also important to send the PowerPoint out in advance so the employee has the option to download the presentation on his assistive technology.

More suggestions for accommodating a training participant who is blind include: when the employee enters the meeting space, verbally identify yourself, ask for specific instructions on how you can assist – "Would you like directions to…?" Would you like to take my arm? If offering to assist someone to find a seat, speak the person's name and tap on the table where the seat is available then offer to guide the person's hand towards the back of the chair.

If you have a meeting participant that identifies as a person who is deaf, you will need to ask the person about the best way to communicate – reading lips, signing, gesturing, in writing, texting, etc. When possible, speak in a well-lit room that is free from background noises and do not put your hands in front of your face or food items in your mouth when talking. And when the person is using an interpreter to communicate, always maintain eye contact with the person who is deaf, not the interpreter.

These are just some inclusion strategies for the most recognized disabilities, but there is more to know about disability awareness. And, there are plenty of programs like JAN funded to help your company to embrace these strategies.

Whether your company is a federal contractor working to comply with the Section 503 goal of employing 7% of employees with disabilities, is pursuing a "usable by all" product development strategy, or has an aging workforce requiring adjustments or accommodations to remain productive, being disability aware should be part of your business strategy.

If you open your mind and your workplace, then your company too can reap the benefits others have experienced by hiring, retaining, and advancing people with disabilities.

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