When it comes to making the workplace accessible to employees with disabilities, many employers are still doing only the legally mandated minimum. They may upgrade the water closet to be wheelchair-friendly and perhaps install a few Braille signs, but it’s rare to see any real enthusiasm for creating an inclusive working environment.
The unemployment rate for disabled people is twice that for the population as a whole, while in many cases they are actually paid less than minimum wage. Whatever public relations departments and official policies say, discrimination remains widespread and, in some cases, institutionalized.
This is obviously an untenable situation, but also represents a major opportunity for forward-thinking companies. By doing more to accommodate and attract disabled employees, they can draw ahead of their competitors when it comes to engaging the kind of talent the knowledge economy depends on.
Why Hire Disabled Employees?
The simplest reason for promoting inclusivity at work is that it’s the right thing to do. When a company’s management shows itself to be willing to take ethics seriously, through actions and not words, this attitude inevitably trickles down through the organization and affects decision-making at every level. If, on the other hand, management treats social issues, including the rights of the disabled, with disdain, it’s very easy for a toxic culture to develop. We’ve seen examples of this with Uber as well as numerous financial institutions.
This visible sign of a company’s values also translates into its relationships with its customers and suppliers. Northrop Grumman, for instance, has a formal policy of employing veterans with disabilities, bolstering its already close relationship with the military.
More importantly, on a practical level, enabling disabled people to work for you gives you access to a much wider talent pool. Some software companies, for instance, are now actively recruiting autistic programmers. They typically had to tweak some of their working procedures, but in return they got a large number of very capable engineers.
Retaining and Developing Disabled Employees
There’s a pervasive myth that employing disabled people costs more. In some cases, this is true, but tax writeoffs and various state and federal incentives tend to balance this out. Disabled employees are also absent from work less often, less likely to get injured at work and tend to work longer for the same company.
Some accommodation is often necessary, but the same can be said about parents with young children or employees who live far from work. What companies need to do is to stop conflating any individual’s particular disability with the real value they provide. Disabled individuals, for their part, should sometimes be more assertive about the skills they bring to the table and insist on being treated equally when it comes to promotions, training opportunities and accessibility in a more general sense.
Note that this doesn’t mean ignoring a person’s disability or indulging them beyond reason. Instead, all that’s needed is to be realistic about what disability actually means. A person might have trouble walking, but still be highly effective in other ways. Providing them with the tools and environment to do their jobs is generally not all that difficult, and can result in very positive business outcomes.
Providing Mental Health Counseling
Although not a disability by some definitions, a very large number of Americans suffer from work-related psychological illness. This is a problem that has to be addressed better, and the easiest way forward is for companies to start treating mental health issues as a disability. Approximately 10 million people will be seriously afflicted in any given year, and the employment consequences run the gamut from complete burnout to high rates of absenteeism to simple loss of motivation. Stress and depression also lead to avoidable conflict at work, causing a self-sustaining cycle.
Although much of the stigma regarding mental illness has dissipated, it remains poorly covered by most corporate health plans. Not only workers’ general wellbeing but also long-term employee retention and productivity can be improved by giving all employees access to counseling services. These are now available online at a reasonable price. We can expect to see perks like these much more commonly in the future: small initiatives such as these cost little, take no time to implement and yet are amazingly effective at fostering an inclusive working environment.