How to Create an Inclusive Work Environment for People with Disabilities

A group of people of various ethnicities, including a man who is sitting in a wheelchair gather in the workplace, looking at the camera while smiling.

By Charlotte Stasio

Employment provides income and a sense of purpose for many people, including those who are disabled. The United Nations reports that in developing countries 80% to 90% of disabled people of working age are unemployed, whereas in industrialized countries the figure is between 50% and 70%. According to a recent report by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19.1% of people with disabilities are employed. However, disability discrimination is one of the most commonly reported types of employment discrimination – with nearly 25,000 claims filed across the United States in 2020. Across the globe, disabled people face discrimination due to ableist beliefs that are deeply ingrained in society.

Employers should take responsibility to address and prevent discrimination and ableism against people with disabilities in the workplace. Creating a workplace that is equitable and inclusive to disabled people benefits companies in several ways. Some of these benefits include: broader talent pools, improved teamwork, fresh ideas and perspectives, and reduced risk of legal consequences.  Above all, employers should work diligently to eliminate barriers that lead to people with disabilities being isolated and unable to have a livable wage to participate in society. 

Facing Ableism and Discrimination in the Workplace

People with disabilities who work face ableism and discrimination in many forms. Some of them include:

  • Being unable to submit an application or attend an interview due to exclusive job description language or inaccessible application processes
  • Being denied accommodations for a service dog
  • Being unable to navigate a workplace due to a lack of mobility device access
  • Having their abilities underestimated by their colleagues or superiors
  • Feeling isolated and lonely in the workplace 
  • Dealing with unconscious biases that are often prevalent in organizations

People with disabilities often downplay their identity as a person with a disability, forgoing requests for accommodations due to fear of retaliation which ultimately takes a physical, mental, and emotional toll. For people with disabilities who are also Black, this compounds with the need to codeswitch, pressured to minimize even more of their identities in order to stay safe.

“I believe one of the main reasons that people with disabilities are consistently finding it difficult to gain employment is that employers tend to have this erroneous assumption that the disabled will likely under-perform in most areas of their duties. This is far from the truth, for many persons with disabilities are, in fact, intellectually superior and have innate talents. Another reason could be that a majority of office set-ups do not have the specifications to cater for disabled personnel,”  Thirumalai Chandroo, Chairman of the education and training organization Modern Montessori International Group told Business Times Singapore. 

Disability and Employment Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was built on the foundation of older laws including The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but also the sustained protests of disability advocates. Passed in 1990, the ADA makes it illegal for employers to ask employees or candidates about disability status or medical history. Other important laws that protect people with disabilities include The Fair Housing Act and The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

Even though these laws do much to protect workers with disabilities, they still have a long way to go. Existing laws rarely account for intersectionality and may even include language excusing certain entities from compliance. These laws also don’t go far enough in addressing the unconscious biases that many people with disabilities are often subjected to.

Writing Inclusive Job Descriptions

When a job posting has requirements like “heavy lifting” or “excellent communication skills,” it can discourage those with mobility disabilities and cognitive disabilities from applying. One of the most important things an employer can do is to write job descriptions that focus on “essential functions” instead of specific abilities. Essential functions should be all about results and not methods. 

For example: do not say talk or hear in a job description when express oneself, or exchange information could be used. Similarly, employers should use terms like move instead of walk to be inclusive of people with mobility disabilities. 

Employers must also offer reasonable accommodations if a candidate with disabilities indicates they cannot perform the essential function as written.

Addressing Non-Apparent Disabilities

Employers might take steps to ensure accessibility with ramps, accessible restrooms, service dog accommodations, and other measures, but non-apparent disabilities must also be taken into account. Conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive disabilities, HIV, and autism are just a few common disabilities that are not visually obvious to others. Folks with non-apparent disabilities may even “pass” as someone without a disability. While this may make it easier to navigate some workplace challenges, it could also make it tough to request accommodations if the employer doesn’t understand the impact of the disability. 

Organizational leadership can implement several practices to support people with non-apparent disabilities. One of the most important things an employer can do is to create a work environment where a person with a non-apparent disability would feel comfortable disclosing their status if necessary. Employers should have plenty of resources for employees to express their access needs anonymously to foster such an environment. Employers can also establish employee resource groups, which are supportive employee-led groups aimed at improving accessibility and inclusion in the workplace. Since many people in the U.S. get health insurance through their employers, ensuring that health plans include coverage that could help people with non-apparent disabilities such as mental health services is also very important. 

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) Initiatives

Employers should recognize the massive benefits of fostering an inclusive work environment and take steps toward achieving this goal. This often takes the form of a comprehensive DEIA strategy. In November 2021 President Biden issued an executive order and a corresponding guidance document called the Government-wide Strategic Plan to Advance Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce. This initiative directs the whole federal government to “ work collaboratively to drive innovation and organizational outcomes, draw from the full diversity of the nation, and position the federal government to serve as a model employer that values and promotes equity for all Americans.” With this leadership from the federal government, organizations of all kinds now have important guidance on addressing gaps and implementing improvements to their DEIA posture.

It is critical that organizational leadership demonstrate a strong commitment to their DEIA strategy so that employers will have access to broader talent pools, improved teamwork, fresh ideas and perspectives, and reduced risk of legal consequences as stated earlier. Creating a strategy is not enough – it needs to be put into action. Implementation can mean changes to the hiring process, employee training, and modifications to the physical or virtual workplace. Employers can greatly improve the inclusivity and accessibility of their workplaces by establishing flexible work schedules and generous telework policies. Giving employees more ways and places to work is essential as we all continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic showed that remote work is a viable option for many organizations where it had previously not been considered. The ability to work remotely is especially important for folks who are immunocompromised, who face significant health risks when exposed to viruses that their colleagues might inadvertently bring to the workplace.

One of the most challenging aspects of any DEIA initiative is recognizing the bias that exists in an organization, but this kind of introspection is critical. Company-wide training programs that educate employees on the ADA, address the pitfalls of bias and discrimination, and provide tools to create an inclusive work environment are essential. Employers must also take the time to learn about any disability their employees have disclosed to provide the proper accommodations – remember that the person with the disability is not obligated to do this educating. In addition, organizations must incorporate inclusive language into company policies, interview and onboarding procedures, and external communications. With any of these initiatives, measuring their success is very important. Employers will want to know how their efforts to create an inclusive work environment pay off with improved productivity, lower absenteeism, a wider talent pool, and a more copacetic workplace.

Finally, employers must extend these considerations to company-sponsored social events, outings, or retreats. Just because your employees are out of the office does not mean your responsibility to provide reasonable accommodations stops.

While some employers may hesitate to provide these access accommodations due to thinking they may be a financial outlay, employers have reported that there are little to no costs for reasonable accommodations. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility reports that a 2020 survey found that:

  • Of 1,029 employers who submitted cost information related to the accommodations they had provided, 56% said that accommodations for employees cost absolutely nothing.
  • Only 4% of respondents said that accommodations resulted in an ongoing, annual cost to the organization. 
  • Of accommodations that required a one-time cost, the median expenditure was $500. 
  • 75% of employers who made changes reported that the accommodations were “very effective” or “extremely effective.”

Additionally, when you embrace accessibility and universal design, everyone benefits. For example, wheelchair ramps are not only useful to those who use wheelchairs, but also for delivery persons carrying dollies and others carrying heavy equipment. Other accessibility features such as automatic doors, closed captions, text-to-speech software and so many more benefit everyone.

The Path Forward

Creating an accessible workplace and fostering an inclusive work environment is challenging, but always worth it for employers. Workers with disabilities will greatly benefit from the improved productivity, sense of belonging, and job security such initiatives bring. Employers will benefit from accessing more diverse talent pools by creating an inclusive work environment for people with disabilities. Hiring people with disabilities means you can extend your market reach, expand your brand and drive innovation. Perhaps most important of all, transforming our workplaces goes a long way toward achieving the vision of an inclusive and equitable world.

Charlotte Stasio, a white woman with short brown hair smiles while wearing a patterned blouse and earrings.

Charlotte Stasio is a Freelance Writer for WID.

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