Every October, the US Department of Labor (DOL) observes the National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This national campaign celebrates the contributions made by workers with disabilities and also raises awareness about the issues they face in employment.
According to reports from the World Health Organization and the World Bank, over a billion people live with some form of disability. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also states that disability affects nearly 1 in 4 people in the United States.
On the broad spectrum of disabilities, some are visible or invisible. Some people experience challenges with their vision, hearing, mobility, or with their brain and nervous system. In such cases, the individuals use some form of aid like glasses or contact lenses, wheelchairs, crutches, walking canes, prosthetic implants, or hearing aids. While for others, their disabilities are hidden and cannot be seen just by looking at them. Diabetes, learning challenges, genetic disorders, and most mental health issues fall under this category. As such, employees with invisible disabilities may decide not to disclose their disabilities at work.
It is, however, important for us to ensure that our workplaces are supportive of people living with disabilities, whether people disclose them or not. We can do this by practicing disability inclusion, which ensures that everyone has the same opportunities to engage in activities or perform their roles to the best of their abilities.
Here are a few ways to practice disability inclusion in your workplace:
- Revisit your talent strategy: In a study by the National Organization on Disability, only 13% of companies have reached the DOL’s target of 7% disability representation in their workforce. This leaves me with questions. How are companies sourcing for talent? Do your recruiting agencies assist job seekers with disabilities? If your company recruits from colleges, what effort is made to find students with disabilities? In practicing disability inclusion, it is best to work with programs or agencies that help people with disabilities find opportunities that highlight their skills.
- Create/Support a Disability ERG: In the same study, you will find that only 4% of US workers identify as having a disability. Since some employees may be unwilling to disclose their conditions, a company can show its support for workers with disabilities by creating a Disability Employee Resource Group (ERG). A disability ERG provides a safe space for employees with disabilities or caregivers to discuss or share resources within the group. This ERG also helps to create awareness and build a community of empathetic workers who can better understand and support their colleagues. The ERG can also provide useful recommendations for attracting, onboarding, and retaining workers with disabilities.
- Provide accessible information: According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers are expected to ensure that employees with disabilities have access to the same information that similarly-situated employees without disabilities have. We live in a digital era, and as such, we can adapt the information we share in the workplace for people living with disabilities. For example, you’ll find that some digital platforms are beginning to include tools such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, or assistive keyboards. Some tools provide closed captioning, stop moving elements, change color contrasts, and convert text-to-speech or text-to-braille. Many technology devices are also offering high-level customization for people with different needs. Think about how you share information in your company and look for ways to adapt them for people living with disabilities.
- Offer flexible work options: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employee who needs a modified or part-time schedule because of their disability is entitled to such a schedule if it will not cause undue hardship. The absence of flexible work options such as telecommuting, flexible schedules, leaves, or reduced work hours may impact employment opportunities for people with disabilities who are unable to commute to work regularly. Create an inclusive environment by offering flexibility to workers. Flexible work options are also useful for employees who need time to care for themselves or family members.
- Make disability awareness year-round: We should be promoting and practicing disability inclusion throughout the year. Instead of waiting until October every year, you can choose to celebrate each disability recognition month in your company. For example, March is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month, April is Autism Awareness Month, May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and October is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month. There are many more disabilities recognized on specific days or months of the year. Companies can promote disability awareness by posting flyers in common areas or through other means of communication.
The NDEAM occurs in October, but disability inclusion shouldn’t end in October. Let us always remember to recognize and celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities.