Why workplace disability inclusion matters now more than ever

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a profound shift in workplaces across the United States and the world. “Because we’ve always done it that way” is suddenly out the window. Instead, much of the American workforce has had to get creative and find new ways of working. 

In the language of workplace disability inclusion, “accommodations” are supports that enable employees to thrive at work. And overnight, we’ve seen millions of Americans using new workplace accommodations. Whether they’re working from home or working with a mask they didn’t need a few weeks ago, many employees are using new supports to get their jobs done.

This rapid adaptation has proven what disability advocates have known all along: When disability inclusion is a natural part of the workplace, barriers will fall and employees will thrive. 

Disability inclusion in the workplace is, at its core, a recognition that employees are human. Employees don’t — and can’t — shed the complexities of their physical and mental selves while they’re at work. 

After all, we’re people. And everyone’s minds and bodies are affected by the nuances of genetics, accident, disease, and age. One in four adults in the United States has a disability. That includes many employees, doing all types of work. Maybe you’re in that group yourself. Certainly some of your colleagues or employees are. But many people don’t disclose their disabilities at work for fear of discrimination or retaliation. 

That’s why Understood and the SHRM Foundation are proud to announce the launch of Employing Abilities @Work. This certificate program will help HR professionals develop the skills to build inclusive workplaces and hire, retain, and advance employees with disabilities. The program will cover key topics like: 

  • Making the business case for disability inclusion

  • Building a pipeline for talent with disabilities

  • Starting a pilot program 

The path forward — why now is the time for workplace disability inclusion

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as a physical or mental condition that affects at least one “major life activity.” This civil rights law requires that employers provide reasonable accommodation to “otherwise qualified” employees with disabilities so they can perform the essential functions of their job. 

The fight for these civil rights was long and fraught — and it’s not over. For decades, people with disabilities have continued to push employers to follow both the letter and the spirit of the law. Because of that history, the sudden embrace of workplace accommodations has been bittersweet for some disability advocates. But it’s also shown what’s possible.

When the current crisis subsides, companies will have seen how important it is to provide the support employees need to do their best work. And employees will see workplace accommodations as a new normal. Businesses that practice disability inclusion will be at the forefront of these changes.

Companies that had strong disability inclusion programs in place before the COVID-19 pandemic hit have likely been able to adapt more quickly to the changing realities. After all, they were already poised to solve problems creatively, to meet employees where they are, and to recognize and value the humanity of their people. 

A robust disability inclusion program makes it easier for all employees to perform to their highest potential. When done well, it promotes a culture that celebrates difference. It encourages employees to “bring their whole selves to work” — something many forward-thinking companies want for their employees.

This moment of change is the perfect time for organizations to take an honest look at their programs and policies. They should ask themselves, “How can we make our company and our culture accommodating and accessible for everyone?” 

We’re not the workforce we once were, and we’re probably never going back. The pandemic has brought us face to face with the differing fragility of our bodies and our mental health. We’ve seen the advantage of prioritizing outcome over process. And we’ve been reminded of the importance of our connections with each other as people.

Disability inclusion — the acknowledgment of our shared humanity — has never been more important. Business leaders across industries should recognize and call out the role that widespread accommodations have played in any current successes. If we’re to build a more agile and robust workforce for the new economy, we need to remember that it will be made up of humans with diverse needs. With disability inclusion as a core value, we can make the most of this opportunity for change.

Nora Genster is a program manager for workplace disability inclusion at Understood. Previously, Nora was an Equal Employment and Opportunity specialist with the Department of the Navy. At the Navy, she also served as a human capital data analyst and executive operations program manager, identifying barriers to equal access to opportunity and formulating and monitoring programs to eliminate these barriers. 


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