How to Embrace People With Disabilities In Your Business: A Disability Advocate Explains

People with disabilities face several barriers to entering the workplace and frequently face discrimination and exclusion.

People with disabilities face several barriers to entering the workplace and frequently face discrimination and exclusion. To develop an institution of inclusivity, people with disabilities must be represented and embraced at every level. According to the World Health Report, an estimated 1.3 billion people — or 16% of the global population — experience a significant disability today. Unfortunately, people with disabilities face mistreatment and discrimination just for having a disability.

Based on the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, a 2004 survey found that only 35% of working-age persons with disabilities are employed, compared to an employment rate of 78% in the rest of the population. Two-thirds of unemployed respondents with disabilities said they would like to work but could not find jobs.

I have been a disability advocate for several years, and I have the experience of growing up with one. I am currently the co-chair of the disability inclusion network where I work, and I've volunteered for many organizations focusing on disability rights. I've advocated for people with disabilities at the White House during the first-ever Mental Health Youth Action Forum.

People with disabilities have more difficulty finding work because they are perceived as less than others or assumed to be unable to work, which is a common misconception. The pandemic's move toward remote and hybrid was a positive step toward providing more flexibility and accommodations for people with disabilities. Before the pandemic, many people with disabilities weren't offered a role due to requesting to work remotely. Offering these options isn't enough, and more changes need to continue to embrace them fully.

Related: How Hiring People With Disabilities Will Make Your Business Stronger

Addressing ableism and sanism

Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities based on just having a disability, and sanism is the same, except for people with mental health conditions. Other forms of discrimination often dominate conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) more than ableism and sanism.

Based on the Harvard Business Review, only about 4% of DEI programs include disability. Even DEI programs designed to address workplace discrimination still fail the disability community, which is why ableism and sanism commonly perpetuate in the workplace. This statistic is concerning as people with disabilities significantly face barriers in the workforce, like low labor force participation rates, higher unemployment rates and pay inequality.

On top of that, many organizations don't incorporate the "A" in DEIA — accessibility — because they don't view it as an issue of equity. For example, issuing two people the same equipment doesn't achieve anything if someone with a disability cannot use the technology to perform.

Invest in accessibility

It isn't enough to announce that your organization prioritizes hiring more people with disabilities if your institution is inaccessible. If any practices are inaccessible, people with disabilities must navigate and maneuver additional barriers. It will be substantially more difficult for them to be seen, hired, considered and celebrated. Accessibility is a growing need every organization should invest in to create the best experience for its users, customers and staff members.

Accessibility transforms information, content and anything else in your business into something sensible, meaningful and easier to use. Are you thoughtfully investing your resources into accessibility or treating it as an afterthought when someone comes forward with an issue? Accessibility should begin before someone requests an accommodation by approaching accessibility proactively. It would help if you devoted a sizeable fraction of your budget to assemble a dedicated team or position to accessibility, e.g. chief accessibility officer. Consider also working with a consulting agency if you want a third-party perspective.

If you have a team in accessibility, is it being evaluated across the company rather than specific areas like technology and infrastructure? Assessing accessibility at every business function, like recruitment, job descriptions, content, social media, operations and events, will upscale and streamline more remarkable results. An example of this is clearing any ableist language on job applications because that already excludes a talented pool of candidates with disabilities.

Accessibility isn't only making work equitable for people with disabilities — it makes it easier for everyone. People with disabilities should be your target demographic for creating the most equitable products for them to enjoy and use. However, if you lead with accessibility in your organizational strategic plan, everyone will systemically benefit.

Related: How We Can Redefine the Word "Disability" One Superpower at a Time

Celebrate disability pride

Based on the National Organization on Disability (NOD), while recently, more people with disabilities are entering the workforce over the last 12 months, self-identification (self-ID) rates have decreased from 4.09 in 2020 to 3.68 in 2021. Supporting people with disabilities must move from only offering accommodations to celebrating disability pride.

Disability pride is the concept that disability isn't just a medical condition but a social identity with enriching intersectionality, community and culture. Disability pride affirms that people shouldn't be ashamed of their disabilities. Disability Pride Month is in July, and the National Disability Employment Awareness Month is in October. Because disability has been stigmatized and shamed for centuries, diverting that shame to pride is the future of disability inclusion.

These are paramount organizational-wide moments to address disability, tell meaningful stories of their lived experiences and show your actionable commitment to DEIA. While those are noteworthy times to prioritize the disability community, disability pride should be distributed throughout the whole year because people with disabilities don't stop existing and living outside of those months.

There are limitless choices to include people with disabilities in the workplace by hosting workshops on disability inclusion, encouraging self-identification, outlining legal resources, facilitating open discussions on disability pride and history, establishing an employee resource group (ERG) to invite people with disabilities, caregivers and allies to join forces and hold the organization accountable and cultivate a more positive culture, work with other networks to showcase the intersectionality of disability and different social identities, appointing board members with disabilities and monitoring how your organization is operating.

Related: 5 Ways Employees With Disabilities Help Maximize a Company's Growth

Diversity without disability is not diversity

Suppose your organization does not include people with disabilities in your mission, decisions, products and leadership. In that case, your organization will never be diverse, and ignoring a substantial and vital population segment will only negatively influence your performance and impact. People with disabilities have the right to work and belong to an organization valuing their contributions and ensuring they have opportunities to thrive as much as everyone else.

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