Disability inclusion in the workplace: The what, why and how

September 16, 2021 - 15 min read

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What is disability inclusion?

What does disability inclusion in the workplace really mean?

Why is disability inclusion a crucial part of today’s businesses?

What are the benefits of having good disability inclusion policies?

Diversity inclusion and disability inclusion

6 initiatives to be more inclusive

Embrace diversity — don’t just tolerate it

While diversity is cited as a top value by almost every organization, people with disabilities often are overlooked or under-supported. Very few organizations include initiatives for hiring people with disabilities. And many don’t consider whether their policies and practices are making it harder than necessary for people with disabilities to fully participate.  

As a result, they’re missing out on a great source of talent, and we’re all missing out on the full potential of people whose abilities put them in some way outside the “standard fit” in our workplaces. 

Having good disability inclusion policies isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s good for everyone, at every level, of your company.

What is disability inclusion?

Many definitions of “disability inclusion” are some variation of “including those with disabilities in every aspect of daily life.” This definition is woefully short-sighted. People with disabilities aren’t lacking in engagement or vitality, and they’re certainly not sitting on the sidelines waiting to be asked to dance.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 25% of adults — that’s one in four — live with a cognitive, physical, or emotional disability. And many of them are among the most talented contributors across every industry. Stephen Hawking had a motor neuron disorder. Robin Williams had Parkinson’s and major depression. Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing as a child. Toni Braxton has lupus. 

The work of inclusion, then, isn’t inviting disabled people to do more. They’re living full lives, blazing paths in their careers. The work is making a difference in the environments that we invite them into. We can design our physical environments, events, websites, and even our language in ways that make it easier for people with disabilities to live their lives and reach their potential. The challenge doesn’t lie with them. It lies with systems that aren’t built with inclusivity and access in mind.

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What does disability inclusion in the workplace really mean?

As with other forms of diversity, disability inclusion goes much further than just making sure you’re meeting the quota. Disability inclusion is about creating an inclusive workplace where people feel welcome and comfortable and where they are seen, valued, and appreciated for what they bring to the table. Not in spite of their differences, but including their differences. No one wants to be tolerated or pitied at work. People with disabilities, just like those without disabilities, want to be recognized for their talents and accomplishments.

Most organizations would never intentionally ostracize someone. But not meaning to hurt someone doesn’t make the omission any less harmful. That’s because, as Sandra Robinson and Kira Schabram explain in Harvard Business Review, even being left out unintentionally “signals that we are socially worthless and a bad fit for that very community that we depend on.” 

Disability exclusion comes from mundane, even well-meaning, sources. Many oversights, like holding a team event in an inaccessible restaurant or relying on people in a meeting to quickly read tiny text off a slide presentation, stem from both a lack of thought or lack of understanding of other people’s potential challenges. 

Other disability exclusion, like avoiding candidates who need accommodation or choosing team members who fit a certain mold, may stem from bias but also from discomfort and even fear. Managers may actually feel uncertain and unprepared to work with someone with a disability and might avoid the situation altogether for fear of doing it wrong.  

Disability inclusion in the workplace means understanding and addressing the causes of all these types of exclusion. 

Having effective and courageous conversations about disability inclusion may be uncomfortable and new. It requires sensitivity and care — plus a healthy dose of transparency — to unlearn implicit bias and become more aware. 

It requires support for managers to be more confident and empathetic as they create environments inclusive of disability. It requires support for those with disability so that they don’t have to be the sole advocates and standard bearers to fight for inclusion.

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Why is disability inclusion a crucial part of today’s businesses?

In the workplace, this means taking special care not to set certain individuals at a disadvantage. Workplace environments can be intrinsically skewed towards those without disabilities. This means that, considering one in four people live with a disability (visible or invisible) a significant portion of your workforce benefits from inclusion strategies.

The ripple effects go well beyond the people who may be living with visible disabilities. Because 96% of severe disabilities aren’t readily apparent, it takes compassion and foresight to plan for accessibility. Showing a commitment to accessibility, especially in multiple ways, shows people that their differences are accepted, welcome, and valued.

Disabilities may include developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, or mental health conditions. Taking a broad view of disability as something that may not be visible is important in boosting efforts towards inclusion in the workplace.

What are the benefits of having good disability inclusion policies?

The benefits of good disability inclusion policies can be felt throughout the workplace. Many disabilities aren’t visible, and employees are under no obligation to disclose them to their employer. That creates an unfortunate paradox — those with hidden disabilities have more control over whether or not to divulge them, but are unable to advocate for accommodations unless they do.

While employers don’t have to provide accommodations unless requested, it’s prudent to use statistics to assume that good policies make a difference for a significant portion of your workforce. Even if you’re unsure which changes to make, creating an environment that is open and supportive to all people has the following benefits: 

1. Your company is more welcoming

Using language or policies that “other” people in subtle ways may cause some of your best talent to leave without a word. Check your marketing materials, websites, and job descriptions to see if you’re using terms that leave some people out. 

2. Recruit and retain better talent

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is twice that of people without disabilities, despite the fact that they want to work. Providing thoughtful inclusion policies makes it possible to attract people who can bring underutilized talent to the table. It also helps boost retention company-wide.

3. Avoid lawsuits and bad PR

Let’s be blunt — the law protects people with disabilities. Companies are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects the rights of persons with disabilities. Morally and legally, it’s not acceptable to exclude people who need reasonable accommodations from a job that they’re qualified to do. And you don’t want to be the company in the news for trying it. Understand that disability rights are human rights.

4. Appeal to different learning styles

A diagnosis, technically speaking, is a shorthand for a group of characteristics. That means that some people without a disability may have experiences that overlap with a disability. For example, a person who isn’t visually impaired may still appreciate larger font or the option to listen to a briefing instead of reading it. Being creative about how you present information and let your employees work will benefit far more people than just your target audience. 

5. Boost productivity and innovation

Think of Maslow’s hierarchy. The more our basic needs are covered, the freer we are to do our best, most engaged and creative work. When people feel cared for, they spend less time in survival mode and they have more to give. And the more creative you are about empowering your team to do their best work, the more innovative they'll be about problem-solving in their day-to-day.

6. Boost camaraderie

Your company culture isn’t just about how you treat your employees. It will set the tone for how they treat each other. Making inclusion of people a company value — in action as well as in writing — will reinforce and promote inclusive behavior within your ranks.

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Diversity inclusion and disability inclusion

Since the creation of diversity inclusion organizations like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), companies have been held accountable for their efforts to reduce barriers to entry for talent from underrepresented backgrounds. These efforts largely focused on hiring people from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, and expanded to efforts to hire women. Yet while 90% of companies cite diversity as a priority, only 4% of companies feel that hiring people with disabilities is part of that initiative.

This “optics-minded” approach to diversity and inclusion robs both employers and employees of the true benefits of diversity. Hiring people from underrepresented backgrounds — whether those distinctions are visible or not — isn’t about what others will think when they step into your office. It’s about creating an environment where diversity of thought, as well as diversity of experience, is valued, celebrated, and utilized. As the saying goes, “The same mindset that got you here won’t get you there.” 

Working with people different from yourself isn’t a favor to them. It’s a favor to the people who get to work with creative thinkers, unique perspectives, and different backgrounds. An organization that prioritizes and embraces diversity gets to challenge stale ways of thinking and stays ahead of the curve.

6 initiatives to be more inclusive

1. Create safe spaces

Employee resource groups, or ERGs, are employee-led groups that support and empower people from underrepresented backgrounds. Having these groups at work fosters a sense of belonging and inclusion. They help build community and provide safe spaces for people to share and get to know other community members. ERGs help boost mental health and improve employee experience.

2. Review your materials

Take the time to look over your copy, website, and marketing materials with a fresh eye. Be on the lookout for language that may exclude people, even if you think the meaning is clear. Avoid referring to people with disabilities as “physically challenged,” “differently abled,” or “special needs.” Never use the word “normal” to describe people without disabilities. 

3. Hire an expert 

When it comes to disability and inclusion, you don’t have to know everything. You just have to be willing to learn. Don’t hesitate to hire a professional who is familiar with the laws and accommodations you may not be aware of. 

They can help you start an ERG, plan conversations with leadership, and prioritize changes to the workplace. They can help you identify other opportunities you might not be aware of, such as using people-first language in your materials. They can also provide resources for practical, disability-inclusive solutions, such as captioning, braille, or sign language interpretation.

4. Talk to your people 

At some point, you’ll need to actually reach out to your team and find out what they need. While people will appreciate you making accommodations on their behalf, leaving them out of the decision-making process is insulting. It may also result in frustration as you make well-intentioned changes that no one actually needed. Including people with disabilities in your decision making is necessary.

While it can seem nerve-wracking to open up a conversation about accommodations (especially as we’re socialized to pretend impairments don’t exist), it’s worth talking about. Many people are afraid to speak up for themselves and may be extremely grateful for the opening.

5. Promote diversity on all levels

Diversity isn’t just about hiring people that look the part. In order to have a truly diverse environment, companies need to go beyond the surface. There are many different kinds of diversity. Physical and cognitive ability, educational and economic background, neurodiversity, and immigration status are just a few that come to mind. Recognize that these individuals do more than just “check a box.” They each bring unique experiences, depth, and nuance to their roles — and to the company as a whole.

6. Be transparent

It can’t be said enough — disability inclusion isn’t a conversation where one person supplies all the answers. It’s a journey. Companies — and leaders — need to show that their efforts to create a more inclusive environment are an ongoing priority, not a project. Allow your leaders and employees to be transparent about their struggles, their mistakes, their wins, and even their own disabilities. The goal is a welcoming community, not a place that says and does everything perfectly all the time. 

Embrace diversity — don’t just tolerate it

As we mentioned, people want to be welcomed, not just tolerated. Your environment should reflect sensitivity, inclusivity, and celebrate each other's differences — both visible and invisible. No matter what, stay transparent, humble, and keep trying to get better. The goal is not to be beyond reproach. It’s to develop an environment where everyone is treated the way they want to be.


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Published September 16, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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