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Small business leadership through crisis: How disability inclusion can help

By Jamie Studenroth

In times of crisis, small businesses have particular challenges that larger companies may not face. 

For one thing, small businesses might not have any dedicated HR staff. That leaves managers to look after any employee stress or mental health needs on their own. And small businesses might have tighter profit margins, making them less resilient when a crisis hits.

But smaller businesses do have a unique advantage in times of crisis: They can leverage their size to be more agile. 

“The smaller your team is, the more quickly you can adapt and innovate,” says diversity and inclusion consultant Ashley Oolman. “It’s faster to implement adjustments or changes when it’s 50 employees versus 5,000.”

So how can you use that agility to your advantage? There’s a rich source of ideas you can tap into right away: the diverse perspectives of your employees.

Employees’ ideas: A key to small business leadership

Each of your employees brings their own unique experience to the job. 

For example, one in four U.S. adults has a disability. That includes many people with invisible disabilities. And those varied experiences⁠ — from vision and hearing impairments through ADHD or mental health issues ⁠— allow employees to have different ways of thinking about things, and a wealth of ideas on how to navigate challenges.

“A lot of times, employees have quick ideas of ways that things could be easier,” says Oolman. “It’s more about being open to innovation rather than integrating everything yourself.”

Many ideas that support employees with disabilities can also make work easier for everyone. And research shows that when a workplace welcomes and embraces diverse talents and perspectives, it’s likely to come out of a crisis stronger. But you might not hear those ideas if you don’t create an intentionally inclusive workplace. 

The importance of inclusion

There are probably many great ideas within your small business today. But if you haven’t focused on inclusion in your workforce, many of your employees may actually be hesitant to bring their “whole selves” to work for fear of stigma or discrimination. That’s not a great situation for employee morale. And it could also mean your business is losing out on these innovative ideas that could help it to weather tough times.

By building a more inclusive workplace, you can help all of your employees to be happier and more comfortable on the job. They’ll also feel more welcome to share their unique perspectives and ideas. That’s a great outcome for a small business, where every employee’s contribution is key.

Fortunately, there are resources available to help small businesses do just that.

Free disability inclusion resources for small business leaders

The blog here at the Workplace Initiative offers lots of short, practical articles that can help you get started. For example, learn what an inclusive workplace looks like, or how to understand invisible disabilities in the workplace. You can also read more about why inclusion matters now more than ever.

And below are some additional free resources for small businesses looking to improve their disability inclusion practice. 

Small business resources:

It’s important to remember that disability inclusion “is not just about responding in reactive ways, or individual requests,” says Oolman. 

“The more you incorporate disability inclusion proactively and make sure you are supporting your employees with disabilities, you’re undoubtedly going to see returns for that.”

Jamie Studenroth is a disability inclusion coordinator at Understood. She has supported people with disabilities in settings such as schools, camps, nonprofits, and employment. She is a longtime advocate for disability justice in the workplace and beyond.

Reviewed by Ashley Oolman. Founder and inclusion consultant of Allied Folk, Oolman guides partners through evidence-based best practices, product development, and progressive thought leadership. From large corporations to individual allies, she transforms strategic business initiatives and advances equitable community spaces. With more than a decade of leadership experience in advocacy, employment, and workplace culture, she understands how to navigate complex environments and provide actionable insights for growth. 

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom