In my work as a Fortune 500 leadership consultant, one of the key issues we address is inclusion — bringing out the best in everyone by making sure their ideas are heard, tapping into their unique talents/perspectives, and creating a sense of belonging. I address these challenges not only through extensive research, but from my personal perspective as a woman, an African-American, and an amputee. Since October is Disability Awareness Month, let’s shine a spotlight on some easy Inclusion Tips for People with Disabilities.
People with disabilities exist across all demographics. It is highly likely that you, a family member, a friend, or a coworker would qualify as a person with a disability (PWD) since 20% of the population, more than 56.7 million Americans, live with some sort of disability. My right leg was amputated when I was 5 years old due to a birth defect; my disability is very visible. Many people, however, have disabilities you may not see, such as a hearing impairment or cognitive challenges like dyslexia. Many veterans are living and working Traumatic Brain Injury or PTSD. Each person with a disability may feel further isolated by the additional impact of their race, religion and gender. Disability inclusion can seem complicated…but it doesn’t have to be.
Here are four simple ideas to get you started being more inclusive of the PWDs in your workplace:
- Invite PWDs to an informal lunch or coffee break:
We all get to know our coworkers through meetings, conferences and projects, but we can become more comfortable and build trust through informal interactions. Invite a coworker with a disability to lunch, take a coffee break together, or include us in after-hours socializing. This allows conversations to loosen up and possibly veer into goals, family, and/or hobbies. If you’re concerned about choosing the right location (is accessibility or background noise an issue?), ask your colleague to suggest the place for coffee or drinks. You may be surprised how many people are intimidated by disabilities and don’t invite PWDs to these kinds of informal social events.
- Ask. Don’t assume.
There is a tendency for people to want to “help” people with disabilities. But more times than not, we don’t need any help – especially for adults with disabilities. We are very independent–because we’ve had to be–and can find our own ways to make the accommodations we need. If you think a person with a disability is struggling with carrying a heavy load, getting a presentation started, or even adding milk to their morning coffee, ask before you assume they need help. When I am asked if I want help, I will usually say ‘yes,’ because it is a great way to build relationships. Furthermore, just like everyone else, there are times when I really do need help and the offer is much appreciated!
This advice is also relevant when considering work accommodations such as visual or hearing assistance in big meetings or access to buses on a corporate campus. Make a point of asking PWDs what we need–or even asking everyone attending the meeting to let you know if any accommodations would be helpful. In my experience, having able-bodied team members advocate for disability accommodations makes them land as more of a business need than just a personal request. While this shouldn’t be the case, sometimes the reality is that things get done faster when additional team members speak up. Be an ally.
- Engage PWDs in career-enhancing activities
Avoid the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Encourage mentorship, sponsorship, and ambitious goals for your coworkers with disabilities. The business world has become more sensitized to avoid sidelining women or minorities with low expectations, but many people still mistakenly think they are doing PWDs a favor by “making life easy” for them at work instead of pushing them to develop in the same ways they would anyone else. PWDs are resilient and resourceful by necessity. Challenge them to perform at their best.
- Leverage the voices of PWDs
It has been estimated that PWDs carry $225 billion in market share. With this in mind, the voice of PWDs in your workplace can be an asset to your bottom line. Tap into your Employee Resource Group for PWDs to gain consumer insights and stay ahead of competitors. Input from PWDs has led companies in industries from telecom to toys to create new products that boost profits!
These four strategies are relatively easy to implement, but they take action and intention. Disability inclusion is not only about doing what is right, but also about doing what is best for your organization. Reaching out to coworkers with disabilities can better leverage their contribution, boost team unity, and increase employee engagement overall. Which step will you take first?