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It’s the age of accommodations. Will disability inclusion take off?


As we begin 2021, Understood is predicting changes ahead for people with learning and thinking differences and disabilities. This is part three of a four-part expert series on our 2021 predictions.

In 2020, most workplaces became more flexible. They had to. When COVID hit, everyone needed to find new ways to stay safe. Remote work, staggered shifts, flexibility with sick time — pandemic accommodations were suddenly the norm.

Today, more companies understand the value of meeting their employees’ needs. They’ve seen the benefits of accommodationsThat’s why we think 2021 will be the year when disability inclusion finally takes hold.

During the pandemic, companies have discovered that there can be more than one way to get things done — and that results matter more than process. It’s been an eye-opener for many of them and a game-changer for some.

“We’ve seen employers allow flextime, provide home-office setup funds, and actually encourage accommodations in numbers that we’ve never seen before,” says Claire Odom, LMSW, a disability inclusion advocate and senior program manager at Understood. “And, by and large, those employers are reaping the benefits with more productive, more dedicated employees.”

Disability inclusion isn’t going to suddenly take center stage just because accommodations have become standard operating procedure. But many companies will pay more attention to it. Some may make it an urgent strategic priority. Others may review and improve their existing practices. And some will be playing catch-up to stay competitive.

2021 will be the year when disability inclusion finally takes hold.

It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to get here. One in four U.S. adults has a disability, and many others will need work accommodations for other reasons in their lifetime. But very few employers have made disability inclusion a priority or know much about it. In fact, only 13 percent of workplaces in the U.S. have disability-specific inclusion initiatives.

Lack of knowledge about best practices has kept companies from talking about disability inclusion. And fearing stigma or retaliation, workers often don’t ask for the supports they need.

But during the pandemic, many employees disclosed a disability for the first time. Some have conditions that put them at greater risk from COVID-19. Others have acquired a new disability because of COVID-19. And some have mental health or other conditions that are impacted by the pandemic.

This has brought the issue of disability and individual needs out into the open. More workers may feel that asking for support is a safer conversation to have. We expect that many employees — with and without disabilities — will start to have higher expectations around accommodations and inclusion.

“Many of us are having more real conversations with our co-workers,” says Odom. “Companies will need to make space for these conversations or risk losing their best talent.”

To stay relevant in 2021, companies will need to have an accommodation mindset.

Here’s what that might look like:

1. Proactively removing barriers.

Instead of waiting for employees to run into barriers, employers will start looking for opportunities to improve accessibility for everyone. For example, they might provide training materials in multiple formats (video, text, audio).

2. Encouraging communication.

Companies will make a point of asking employees what they need to do their work and will really listen to the answers. Honest communication about disability and accommodations helps create inclusive workplaces where people feel valued and heard.

3. Leading by example.

More and more leaders within companies will feel comfortable talking about their own disabilities at work. And they’ll support managers and HR representatives to lead conversations around accommodations, disability, and inclusion.

Another year of change is ahead in 2021. Forward-thinking employers will embrace the principles of disability inclusion, including flexibility and communication. They’ll ask their employees what they need to get the job done, and they’ll trust them to know the answer.

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