5 steps to build an inclusive workplace for people with disabilities

Building an inclusive workplace isn’t just about hiring people with disabilities. It’s about developing long-term strategies, systems, and support to create an environment where people with disabilities can succeed. 

Here are five steps your company can take to build an inclusive workplace, according to James Emmett, a disability inclusion expert and lead workplace strategist for Understood.

Step #1: Implement company-wide training 

Companies with successful disability inclusion initiatives hire a consultant to develop and implement a training plan. If you want to have a good training program, you can’t do it on your own,” says Emmett.

Each level of the company plays a part, including:

  • Leadership: Getting buy-in from company leadership for a disability inclusion initiative is key. “You want to make sure you’re training the leaders about the business case for disability inclusion while also addressing the fear and stigma that surrounds people with disabilities,” says Emmett.

  • Supervisors: “The success of your effort depends on the relationship between direct level managers and the people they supervise,” says Emmett. Supervisors may be afraid the new hires won’t be able to keep up, are going to get hurt, or aren’t qualified. “If you don’t take the fear on, your disability inclusion initiative may not work.” Not only do supervisors need specific tips and strategies about managing people with disabilities, they also need permission to voice their concerns. Then trainers and supervisors can discuss how to address them together.

  • Co-workers: Team members should also receive training on disability inclusion and awareness, though it doesn’t have to be as in-depth. Letting co-workers know what to expect and answering their questions can make them feel more comfortable and willing to engage. 

Step #2: Build a sourcing and retention plan 

A common strategy is partnering with a recruiting agency that supports people with disabilities. These external organizations are usually nonprofits, such as Easterseals, Goodwill Industries, and The Arc. This is a good first step, but employers need to be more systematic if they want a successful program. 

“More and more companies want to hire people with disabilities, so finding qualified candidates is getting competitive,” says Emmett. Employers have to be creative if they want a pipeline of prospects. Consider strategies such as:

  • Reaching out to state agencies, such as vocational rehabilitation offices

  • Contacting the career service office and disability resource center at local universities, community colleges, and technical and vocational schools

  • Placing ads in churches and grassroots organizations

Step #3: Provide supports for employees with disabilities

Employers need to think about how they’re going to support employees with disabilities on the job. The traditional answer is to use job coaches from local disability organizations. 

While “these services are valuable, employers need to own their training program and not rely solely on an external organization,” notes Emmett. “A sustainable answer is building natural supports by working with supervisors and co-workers on strategies to support people with disabilities long-term.“ Supports may include accommodations, assistive technology, and other forms of job aid. 

Many employers say it costs little or nothing to accommodate workers with disabilities. 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.

Step #4: Communicate your disability inclusion plan internally

Make sure you’re sending out messaging to your internal staff about the disability [inclusion] initiative,” says Emmett. Engaging employees at all levels builds enthusiasm and support that contributes to an inclusive workplace. 

Presentations from leadership, internal newsletters, social media, company intranet, and email are among the channels to get the word out. And messaging should connect the details of the inclusion plan with the goals of the organization as a whole. 

“You want to create a disability brand for your company,” says Emmett. Be sure to share success stories when they happen. As your program evolves, your organization’s communication strategy should include the larger community and the disability community.

Step #5: Measure your return on investment

Building an inclusive workplace involves staff time and financial resources. “It may be the right thing to do, but if it doesn’t generate returns it’s not sustainable,” says Emmett. Measuring intangibles such as increased morale or culture change can be difficult. But you can measure variables such as:

  • Lower recruiting costs. Posting job openings on traditional hiring sites can be expensive. But local disability organizations will post your job openings for free. That diminishes recruiting costs. 

  • Improved retention. Many companies find that people with disabilities stay on the job longer. A multi-year Walgreens study found that turnover for employees with disabilities was half the rate of those without disabilities. 

  • Lower absenteeism. Some studies have found that people with disabilities have fewer absences than their co-workers. Another study found that employees with disabilities had fewer scheduled absences than those without disabilities. The study also found that retail workers with disabilities had fewer unscheduled absences than those without disabilities. 

  • Tax credits, job training dollars, and other incentives. Incentives such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) and On-the-Job Training (OJT) Dollars can offset the cost of training and supports.


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