What Does an Inclusive Workplace Really Mean for People With Disabilities?

By Kate Kelly
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An inclusive workplace is one where people with all kinds of differences and disabilities feel welcome and valued for their contributions. It’s a place where people with disabilities—both visible and invisible disabilities—have the same opportunities for advancement as their co-workers. And it’s a place where people feel safe disclosing their disabilities that aren’t visible. 

Here are best practices that lead to an inclusive workplace, according to James Emmett, a disability inclusion expert and lead strategist for the Workplace Initiative.

An inclusive culture assumes everyone is capable of doing a good job—regardless of disability. 

As with any hiring effort, disability inclusion is about matching the right candidate to the right job. And once people with disabilities are hired, it’s important that those employees be treated like they have the core skills to do the job.

“Hold your employees with disabilities to the same standards as everyone else,” says Emmett. “Don’t be afraid to be direct with them, and give clear and honest feedback.” Like nondisabled employees, employees with disabilities want to know how they’re doing and whether there are areas for improvement.

This management style will also help employees with disabilities improve their skills, which increases their value to the company and opens up future advancement. Find out more about common myths and misconceptions about hiring people with disabilities.

An inclusive culture provides equal access to growth opportunities. 

Employees with disabilities want professional development opportunities, just like anyone else. This includes conferences and trainings, as well as being sponsored for mentoring programs. If your company offers tuition reimbursement, make sure this is communicated. And if employees’ participation in these programs requires accommodations, try to plan ahead. 

According to a survey by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), 58 percent of accommodations cost nothing, and nearly all the rest involved a one-time cost that averaged only $500. Plus, tax incentives such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) and On-the-Job Training (OJT) dollars can also help employers cover the costs of accommodations. Learn more about potential tax benefits for your company from disability inclusion.

An inclusive culture rewards talent and hard work. 

Allowing employees with disabilities to learn new skills and advance in their career benefits everyone. Emmett cites an example of an employee who was deaf. A promotion to a team leadership position came through, despite the fact that he would be supervising hearing employees who didn’t know sign language. 

“That could have been a barrier,” says Emmett. “Instead, his supervisor was committed to figuring out a way to make it work. They equipped employees with texting devices and pads of paper. When people on the team indicated they wanted to learn basic sign language, the company provided resources.”

An inclusive culture invites participation from people with disabilities.

Managers and co-workers should make it clear that they welcome the opinions and contributions of colleagues with disabilities. “Make sure your employees with disabilities have a voice in staff meetings and during team discussions,” says Emmett. 

In an inclusive culture, employees with disabilities are also part of the kind of casual work interactions—from birthday gatherings to co-worker lunches—that lead to friendships and a sense of belonging. 

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An inclusive culture communicates its disability inclusion initiative.

For a workplace to be inclusive of employees with disabilities, “it’s important that all employees know about your disability initiative,” says Emmett. Companies should be “loud and proud” about it. Here are some ways your company can achieve this: 

  • Tell employees you are striving to be a disability-friendly employer. Ask them whether they know of any qualified candidates with disabilities who might be suited for roles at the company. 
  • Provide facts about the disability community. For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 4 American adults have some type of disability. And 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability.
  • Tie the initiative to the company’s mission. If you’re committed to diversity, for example, connect disability inclusion messaging to that value. 

In addition to communicating your initiative to employees, disability-awareness training is vital.

This means that ”the disability consultant or lead in the disability project for the company is checking back with supervisors and employees and following up to make sure everyone is doing well after the training,” says Emmett. 

These follow-ups should lead to open conversations about addressing issues that may be concerning co-workers or supervisors. Learn more about concrete steps to build an inclusive workplace for people with disabilities.

An inclusive culture creates a pathway for people with disabilities to connect. 

In larger companies, there is often a dedicated employee resource group (ERG) or business resource group (BRG) for different diversity groups. An ERG for people with disabilities provides a forum where they can share their experiences, host events, and raise awareness about issues. 

Members of the ERG may approach leadership to discuss ways that the interviewing process could be improved for people with disabilities. “Companies have to act on what the ERG is telling them or there’s no point. But when leaders follow up on feedback, it can really enhance the environment,” says Emmett.

The ERG can also include allies who don’t have a disability themselves but have an interest in or personal experience with disabilities. These allies can help further the mission of the ERG.

An inclusive culture encourages ongoing conversations about disabilities. 

Company leaders can play a powerful role in sparking such a dialogue by connecting with employees who have disabilities. They can ask to meet with employees who have disclosed their disability to hear their thoughts about the company and their experience. (Of course, participation must be voluntary.) 

There may also be leaders who have disabilities that they haven’t disclosed. “One way to create an inclusive culture is for that leader to come out and say, ‘I have a learning disability. Having dyslexia has been part of my journey. I want to know what your journey has been like.’”

Creating a climate where people feel comfortable disclosing their disabilities is a significant indicator of an inclusive culture.

An inclusive culture recognizes that hiring employees with disabilities is good for business.

In a workplace culture that is inclusive, “working with people who have disabilities is just part of the normal way of doing business,” says Emmett. 

There is clear evidence that an inclusive workplace culture positively contributes to an organization’s bottom line and values. In fact, a 2018 study by Accenture discovered that companies that adopt best practices for hiring and supporting people with disabilities outperform their peers. These companies achieved—on average—28 percent higher revenue, double the net income, and 30 percent higher economic profit margins. 

“But creating that inclusive culture takes time, effort, and planning,” says Emmett. The Workplace Initiative can partner with your company on a disability inclusion initiative. 

Check out our Quick Start Guide to find out how you can create a culture that values people with disabilities for their strengths and gives them opportunities to succeed.