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Disability DEI

Does your DEI strategy consider disability?

By Guest Author: Louis Olander

Disability as a social construct

Many of us are familiar with the idea of race and gender being social constructs that are built around skin color and biological sex. Understanding them as social issues instead of biological issues is important because it changes our ability to reshape them so that they aren’t the basis of unfair treatment at work.

But we’ve been reluctant to think about disability in this way. Most folks still think of disability as something that lives in someone’s body or mind entirely, without thinking about how social factors play a role in rendering someone disabled.

Consider a brilliant and skilled job candidate who is offered a job but has to decline the position because they have a medical condition that they would have to disclose and are afraid of what the employer’s reaction would be. Our general treatment of disability would lead many people to lament their situation but encourage them to accept the job anyway and perhaps even to “tough it out.”

Framing their situation as a problem of their body instead of a social problem, which is actually the function of a broader attitude towards who should bear any hardship hurts us all. Understanding disability is an interaction of an individual’s body and mind with a context that devalues or isolates them, however, allows us to rethink what we can do to include them.

Rethinking attitudes and interactions

Understanding disability as an interaction between person and context allows us to focus on what we can and should change. In the workplace, it is never desirable (nor likely even possible) to try to “fix” an individual worker. No matter our position in an organization, we all have the ability to adjust the context of work to allow people with disabilities to be included.

For those of us with little institutional power, this may be limited to rethinking our attitudes and interactions with disabled people. With respect to microaggressions, it is paramount to understand that the impact that they have on disabled people matters more than our often good intentions.

For those of us with the ability to shape workplace policies and structures, we can go further to reshape work contexts. For a start, you may find yourself able to address some or all of the following:

  • Physical access (i.e. ramps, elevators) for people with mobility needs.
  • Availability of perceptual access (i.e. closed captions, digital accessibility for screen readers) for blind and deaf people.
  • Increased learning access (i.e. multiple ways of sharing information) for people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
  • Inclusive remote and flexible work policies for people with fatigue syndromes, autism, ADHD, or PTSD.
  • Acceptance of wearing masks for people who may be immunocompromised, or may otherwise need to protect themselves from viral illnesses.

These concrete suggestions must be met with a culture of acceptance and openness, though. Just as a wheelchair user may be able to enter a workplace via a ramp, if the culture of the job is hostile and supports are only grudgingly given, the needle on including that person has scarcely moved.

Neurodiversity in the workplace

Neurodiversity is an emerging framing of some less apparent disabilities, sometimes referred to as hidden or invisible disabilities, with a large proportion of disabled people possibly also fitting into this category.

In theory, human brains are neurodiverse, that is, they come with a range of innate ways that they perceive and process learning, interpersonal interactions and emotional experiences. Neurotypical people are those of us whose brain function is said to be “normal.”

However, many neurodivergent people have reframed normalcy as a question of value – some people’s brain functions are valued more than others. People with ADHD, various learning disabilities, Autism and other neurotypes (note not disorders!) can make a wide range of valuable contributions in the workplace when their perspectives are valued.

Lamentably, there is a movement to separate neurodivergence from disability. Some individuals (and their parents/caregivers) who are not neurotypical seek to avoid the stigma attached to disability. This has the negative consequence of supporting inclusion for some “fewer” disabled people, while leaving those with obvious disabilities unheeded.

Self-identification and workplace accommodations

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that those with disabilities receive “reasonable accommodations” when requested at work. However, many disabled people are reluctant to disclose their disabilities for fear of the stigma associated with them. In fact, several studies [1] [2] [3] have found that a primary driver for individuals with disabilities to disclose a disability is the hope that they can receive a specific accommodation.

At a time when disabled people are participating in the workforce more than ever before [4], we can reshape our contexts to remove the stigma associated with disability, which will allow folks with “hidden” disabilities to express their full selves.

Providing accommodation seems like it would be expensive to employers. However, studies have shown that most workplace accommodations cost nothing to implement, and those that do have costs are vastly outweighed by increases in productivity.

HR professionals, in particular, have the opportunity to reduce barriers that disabled people face in requesting accommodations.

Disability intersections: race, gender and sexuality

Disability is rarely operating on its own. Disabled people come from all walks of life; therefore, their experiences are a cross-section of the workforce overall. But just as Black women are unlikely to benefit from programs that benefit women (which disproportionately help white women) or programs that benefit Black people (which disproportionately help Black men), those who are disabled and minoritized because of race, gender or sexuality often struggle to secure the protections that policies intend to.

This has a long historical precedent. In seeking to scientifically prove that Black people were inferior, phrenologists of the past analyzed the skulls of people of African descent as well as white people in mental asylums, asserting the innate criminality of each. Intelligence, as a psychological concept, has its roots in ideas that sought to exclude Black Americans from military service. Homosexuality was a diagnosable mental illness and it was not until 1987 that homosexuality was completely removed from the American Psychiatric Association list of mental disorders. Non-conformity to gender norms can still yield a “gender dysphoria” diagnosis which is often felt by those who later transition to their preferred gender rather than the gender of their birth. Lest we forget, women who were deemed to be hysterical (which has its roots in the word for womb) faced isolation, shock treatment and even lobotomy only a few generations ago.

Universal design for the workplace

Universal design, simply put, is the development of structures that allow everyone to gain access by prioritizing the needs of the most marginalized then making those supports available to everyone as an option.

Strategies can be as simple as allowing cameras off without penalties in videocalls, specifically seeking to support those with a range of disabilities, as well as many of the rest of us who just prefer to not have to be on display. Using generative artificial intelligence (like ChatGPT or Copilot) as an assistive technology to streamline tedious and frustrating tasks may most profoundly benefit those of us with disabilities that affect memory but will almost certainly benefit a wider audience.

Workplaces have the capacity to include disabled people in ways that many other realms of social life cannot. Gainful employment itself is a bulwark against many of the most harmful effects of disability discrimination. Companies and organizations can reorient themselves towards inclusivity in ways that many other public institutions struggle to.

About the author

As Founder and Principal Consultant at Louis Olander Consulting LLC, Louis leverages more than 16 years of experience in education to guide organizations through transformative learning and development processes. HIs role involves crafting bespoke, inclusive learning strategies, overseeing the integration of AI tools into educational practices, and fostering environments that champion organizational growth and diversity.

If you are interested in guest authoring a post for our blog please contact Spectra Diversity.

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