As the “melting pot” country, America is an amalgamation of many cultural backgrounds, providing a strong foundation for openness and inclusion for people of all lived experiences and abilities. As Disability Employment Awareness Month, October is a particularly appropriate time to renew the commitment to the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace.
It has been proven time and again that working with a diverse team of many minds and perspectives results in the best outcomes. It is only possible to make fully-informed decisions and plans when we include all groups in the brainstorming and execution processes. This is why it is so often said that a group comprising exclusively able-bodied individuals cannot accurately determine the best course of action for a product or service oriented toward people with disabilities. Without knowing how to appeal to one’s audience and their needs, a business risks alienating that very audience. Good diversity is good business.
Leaders may be open to and accepting of people with disabilities within their organizations, but it is important to ensure the company culture, advertising, and internal documentation reflect this mindset. That means updating employee handbooks to address disability discrimination. True acceptance also means including photos of employees with disabilities on company materials and reports and offering information about training programs and workshops for people with disabilities. When an organization reflects a more inclusive mindset throughout every aspect of its company culture, its commitment to diversity really shines.
Leaders should also remember that many people within and outside their organization have an “invisible disability,” meaning they experience a physical or mental limitation that isn’t readily seen. Sometimes these individuals may appear “fine” when in fact they’re dealing with hidden struggles and difficulties. Challenges like debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, learning differences, mental health disorders, and hearing and vision impairments are not always obvious to others, yet they can severely impact a person’s life.
It’s important to take these issues into account when considering the diversity of the team. Although invisible disabilities may require some accommodation, these conditions do not eliminate the creativity, productivity, resourcefulness, motivation, and ingenuity of the individuals in our workforces.
While attitudes regarding disabilities in the workplace are beginning to shift in response to increased awareness, we still have further to go. Currently, 7.3 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, compared to only 3.4 percent for people without disabilities. Part of the problem is that many continue to believe outdated myths and false stereotypes, especially those that imply individuals with disabilities don’t want to work, won’t be reliable on the job, or will cost employers too much extra cash in the form of accommodations. In reality, people with disabilities are as hard-working and successful in their careers as anyone else. These individuals also bring important diverse perspectives from their life experiences and work in previous jobs.
Compounding the problem is that many individuals who want to return to work simply don’t know about the resources available to them. For those who are receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, the Social Security Administration has a free program called Ticket to Work that provides a variety of resources to help you find or return to work. According to internal data gathered by Allsup Employment Services, 52 percent of SSDI applicants say they want to return to work someday, if they are able to medically recover, but less than a third know about the Ticket to Work program.
The theme of this year’s Disability Employment Awareness Month is “America’s Workforce: Empowering All.” True, widespread empowerment means hiring individuals with disabilities who can bring unique sets of skills and abilities to the team. There has never been a better time for these individuals to try going back to work.
In addition, this is the moment for companies to take the reins and lead their organizations and workforces toward more informed, inclusive cultures. By creating a workplace that welcomes — and is accessible to — everyone, you will reap the many advantages of having individuals with disabilities on your team. In today’s world, an inclusive, supportive, and encouraging company culture that embraces employees of all backgrounds is the most successful investment you can make.
Paula Morgan is senior claims representative at Allsup Employment Services.