Originally published in Los Angeles Times’ Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Magazine created by its B2B Publishing Division.
Recently, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has taken center stage in public discussions. Examples of this can be seen in popular culture where the importance of including creators, characters and viewpoints from a diverse range of backgrounds has been recognized.
As stated in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, "Eternals’ has the MCU’s first Deaf superhero. Her Deafness is one of her superpowers”: “In the comics, Makkari is known primarily for her superhuman speed, which allows her to spin cyclones, run on water and defy gravity. In Marvel Studios’ forthcoming adaptation, Makkari is also Deaf — a key asset that distinguishes her from her fellow celestial protectors.”
This is an important example of how the world is recognizing that DEI is not complete without embracing disabilities and addressing accessibility.
This superpower is one that I share. Having a hearing impairment my entire life has led me to develop coping mechanisms, such as reading lips, but it has also turned me into a great listener ─ a quality all good leaders should have.
Over the years, I have learned not only the strength that comes from my disability but also how sharing my story empowers others to do the same, especially in the workplace.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61 million adults (or one in four people) in the U.S. has a disability. It can, therefore, be deduced there are disabled individuals in most organizations. However, talking openly about disability is still taboo.
While companies are reevaluating DEI efforts, people with disabilities are often left out of these conversations and likely missing from these strategies. Disabled people are talented, innovative, adaptable and resourceful ─ their limitations often require this. By recognizing the disabilities employees have, understanding why it is important to include them in a diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) strategy and learning how to implement an inclusive plan, companies can better set themselves and their employees up for success.
WHAT IS THE SPECTRUM OF DISABILITY
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (passed in 1990 and amended in 2008) prohibits the discrimination of disabled people in the workplace, among other places. It also defines a disabled person as one “who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment or is regarded as having such an impairment.”
While ADA provides protections, many individuals do not identify as having a disability out of fear of being marginalized. Disability is often framed by physical limitations, such as using a wheelchair; however, the spectrum of disability is vast and includes both visible and invisible limitations.
Invisible disabilities include cognitive disorders, mental health diagnoses or chronic health issues, such as autism, arthritis or dyslexia. Oftentimes, individuals adopt coping mechanisms to mask invisible disabilities due to fear, shame or embarrassment. It is important for organizations to recognize that even if employees do not talk about it, these disabilities are quite common.
WHY INCLUSIVE MEANS ALL
The path to access is different for each person and dependent on how barriers present to them. An equitable workplace is inclusive of individual needs and determines what is required for each person to be successful.
These employees are the experts, and it is important to provide safe spaces where they can express their needs and concerns. Employee Resource Groups are a great place for individuals to exchange ideas and enact change.
It is also important to be aware that unconscious bias can lead disabled people to be overlooked for projects and promotions. According to the Center for Talent Innovation’s “Disabilities and Inclusion” study, only 39 percent of employees report their disability to their manager and 21 percent disclose to HR. Similar to other DEIA topics, normalizing conversations around disability help to destigmatize these issues. These conversations will not be easy, but the more these important matters are discussed, the less individuals will feel the need to hide.
HOW TO BEGIN AND BUILD
DEIA issues have been in the spotlight recently. Whether about social, health or political issues, there has been increased dialogue and more empathy for one another’s struggles. As a result, individuals with underlying conditions have felt more empowered to request accommodations.
However, not everyone feels ready to discuss the topic. Companies must acknowledge that they have employees with disabilities without requiring those people to disclose their limitations. Organizations can support disabled talent by:
- Update hiring practices. Evaluate and remove language from job descriptions that is not relevant to the role’s primary function. Additionally, provide easy-to-access accommodation information on hiring pages. This will help alleviate the stress of making accessibility requests.
During the interview process, ensure hiring managers are educated about equitable practices around disability. Unconscious bias training can help remove stereotypes that disabled people cannot work long hours or perform the job functions.
- Be accommodating. Title I of the ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for disabilities applications and employees, including restructuring jobs, making worksites/workstations accessible and modifying schedules, equipment and policies.
Companies need to leverage technology to provide accommodations for disabled employees. Adjustable desks and monitors, color-coded keyboards, screen reader software and sign language apps are a few examples. Microsoft has developed additional tools and solutions that can be easily adopted.
- Be curious, not judgmental. Disability training should be incorporated as part of the onboarding process. Leaders and employees alike must learn to look at the whole individual, not a person’s disability. Be curious. Ask questions. Solicit feedback. Listen. But above all, foster relationships with these employees.
DOING WELL BY DOING GOOD
Good talent is hard to find. In the midst of what is known as “The Great Resignation,” that phrase has taken on a new meaning. Disabled populations are often overlooked in the workforce. There are many talented people looking for the right workplace to call home. By recognizing disabilities, utilizing inclusive policies and building out DEIA strategies that incorporate disabilities, companies will be able to better help disabled individuals thrive to the benefit and advantage of the organization.