American employers favor an idealized and frankly imaginary employee, who is young, able-bodied, neurotypical and unchanging. The problem is this employee does not exist.
The reality is as many as 25% of job seekers and current employees are people with disabilities, with that number potentially surging as millions of Americans cope with long COVID-19. As leaders continue to grapple with the tight labor market and look at grim economic forecasts for the coming year, they will have to make careful investments to make sure all employees, including those with disabilities, can do their best work.
It is simply good business.
Inclusion results in higher profit margins
An Accenture study found that businesses that are leaders in disability employment and inclusion had on average 28% higher revenue, double the net income and 30% higher economic profit margins compared with their peers.
However, too many leaders relegate disability inclusion to human resources, ignoring its potential for wholescale business transformation. It is well past time to recognize that a disability-inclusive management strategy needs to become part of the bedrock of future-looking and innovative business practices.
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At its core, disability inclusion and anti-ableism at work are about creating enabling environments in which disabled employees do better work, stay longer and contribute to higher revenue. For many disabled people, inaccessible environments and workplace cultures are the greatest barriers to success – not their disability. To create an enabling environment, employers must prioritize a culture of accommodation.
An accommodation is an “adjustment to a work environment or job tasks that allows a qualified worker to substantially perform the job in question,” according to the Legal Information Institute. While an understanding and adherence to the legal requirements of accommodation are important, the potential is so much greater.
Support accommodation-sensitive workers
A 2019 study found that about 23% of the workforce could benefit from an accommodation. Of that population of accommodation-sensitive workers, only about half were receiving the support they needed. This adds up to countless hours of lost production, thought, innovation and advancement.
How can an accountant focus on her work if she knows there is no wheelchair accessible bathroom in her office? How can an autistic parts finisher excel if they aren’t allowed to wear noise cancelling headphones to reduce overstimulation? How can any employee succeed if their environment exacerbates the limiting elements of their disability?
We’re still biased:Just look at the reaction to John Fetterman’s accommodation request
Visibility and diversity:I remember life before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Now, we need to do more.
To realize the potential of all employees, leaders need to understand that creating an enabling environment is not a one-month special initiative placed on human resources.
Instead, leaders need to intentionally equip managers, operations and team leaders with knowledge and tools to make anti-ableism part of the rhythm of business. It needs to be a strategy that is integrated across and within an entire business. Smart organizations and businesses will recognize disability-inclusive and anti-ableist management training as a singularly powerful and largely ignored lever for culture transformation and business success.
Managers should be equipped to exercise flexibility and creativity to meet the needs of their employees, including their disabled employees. They should be empowered to collaborate with all employees to identify what adjustment to the work environment would enable them to succeed.
A manager who is ill-equipped to support disabled employees is ill-equipped to manage up to 1 of every 4 employees. Whether a manager knows it or not, it is likely they have a disabled employee on their team.
Some disabilities are constant, and others are fluid. Some disabilities are lifelong, and others are brand new. Many people become disabled over the course of their career.
To continue to ignore this reality is bad business. And employers can’t take any chances right now.
Nora Genster is the senior director of the Employment Transformation Collective at Northwest Center, a nonprofit working with some of the country’s largest corporations to advance equal opportunities for people with disabilities.