You may have heard the latest thinking that to create a productive and engaged workforce, we need to create a sense of belonging and enable people to bring their whole selves to work. The evidence is mounting for racial equality, women’s rights, and LGBT+ and disability inclusion in the workplace and presents a win: win for employees and organizations alike.
However, a fifth of the population has a disability or long-term condition which may be impacting their work day-to-day. They may be hiding or masking this impact or not working to their strengths. They may go home exhausted having used all their energy in their role, which impacts their work-life balance. And the reason? They are fearful of telling their employer, fearful they won’t get the job, or the promotion, or suddenly be treated differently because of stigma, judgment, or misplaced paternalism.
Disability is not a dirty word. It does not mean ‘not abled.’ It should not be replaced with ‘differently abled’ or ‘additional/special needs.’ Instead, we should recognize that in line with the social model of disability, it is society that disables the person. Through physical barriers like stairs that make environments inaccessible for a wheelchair user or someone with limited mobility, but also through policies, processes, and crucially, attitudes. Attitudes and assumptions about what disabled people can and can’t do – this is where we have most work to do.
There is a groundswell of change when it comes to disability inclusion, but very often employees tell me that they don’t share their disability because they don’t know if their condition would be classed as a disability, they ‘don’t feel disabled enough’ or will only tell their employer if they run into difficulties, rather than being set up to succeed from the outset. Line managers who are apprehensive about the language to use, questions to ask and the potential for causing offense. So, we end up with an impasse and we are nowhere closer to achieving disability inclusion both in and out of the workplace.
20% of our workforces have a disability, long-term mental health, health condition, or neurodivergence. This is a significant proportion, but this is rarely if ever reflected, in the number of people who choose to share this with their employer. 70-80% of these are unseen conditions, also known as hidden or invisible disabilities. 83% of people also acquire a disability during their working lives, either gradually (through deterioration of sight/hearing, etc) or suddenly as a result of a diagnosis.
We have a growing number of people who would benefit from discussing their needs and requirements, and for these to be accepted and implemented if team members are to bring their best selves to the workplace. We have spent (quite rightly) a lot of time on physical access, and whilst there is still more to do, we need to focus more on challenging myths and misconceptions, understanding energy-limiting conditions and appreciating different ways of thinking and communicating if we are to get the best from our teams.
Team members can be enabled to thrive in the workplace with a blend of adjustments, tools, and strategies. Very often these are low cost, or no cost and many involve small changes such as flexibility in hours, establishing communication preferences, or the way in which information is shared. We have all the technology at our fingertips to support a more inclusive and productive approach to work.
However, we must start to create a supportive environment where people feel empowered and safe to share their disabilities rather than ‘disclosing’ a dirty secret. Given the numbers, we must start to normalize the experience of disability. We need to train our line managers to have the conversation, and start to understand what helps people to thrive and where to reach out to if needed. We must reassure and remove apprehension or fear, as we are not born with this information and so education is vital, but we must have managers with the appropriate skill set of empathy and communication skills to start the conversation.
Those organizations that are doing this are thriving, those that aren’t may be left behind as new talent and often investment goes elsewhere, and existing staff become demotivated, disengaged, or leave. Can you afford to do this? Disability inclusion is not just a nice to have, it is a business imperative.
To find out more about disability inclusion training for your workforce, discover our brand new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion collection here.
Kate Dean spent over 10 years leading and managing student facing disability support teams in universities before setting up Enable Disability & Inclusion Consultants in March 2020.