Creating Inclusion in the Workplace for People with Disabilities

People with disabilities face distinct challenges when entering the workforce. According to the UN, in developing countries, 80% to 90% of working age people with disabilities are unemployed. In industrialized countries, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is at least twice that of those who have no disability and in some countries are projected to be as high as 50% to 70%.

This large untapped workforce creates opportunities for organizations – accessing new talent pools and employing individuals that bring unique points of view to their teams. Like many diversity and inclusion topics, real change requires deliberate contributions to an inclusive workplace culture. Accenture found that corporations with high disability inclusion are twice as likely to have higher total shareholder returns compared to their peers. Furthermore, companies that have improved their inclusion of people with disabilities, over time, are four times more likely to have total shareholder returns that outperform their peers.


Setting a foundation

70% of disabilities are nonvisible. You may think that you don’t have someone on your team or in your workplace that has a disability, but chances are you do. With many disabilities being nonvisible, it is important not to make assumptions. Rather, create an inclusive workplace where everyone can connect and contribute.

Learn the lingo. Words matter and it’s important to have a basic understanding when communicating with or about people with disabilities. Most individuals prefer person first language, meaning that they identify as a person first and having a disability second. For example, instead of saying “deaf person” you could say “someone with hearing loss” or “someone who is deaf”. Each of us are is different and has individual preferences, so if you aren’t sure, ask the individual.

Meet and greet. When you’re introduced to someone with a disability, shake their hand (or greet them however you would with anyone else). If the individual is blind, verbally identify yourself and others around you. If the individual is accompanied by an interpreter or caregiver, speak to the person with the disability directly.

Ask First. You may see an opportunity to help someone with a disability – opening a door, guiding someone down a hallway, or changing the lighting in a room. Instead of assuming the individual needs assistance, ask them if you can help and wait for the offer to be accepted. They know their abilities best. Also ask before touching a device or animal that may be used for assistance. A guide dog could be in work mode and your interaction could interfere with the dog’s ability to safely guide the individual.

We’re all just living our lives. Everyone is different and has their own personality and needs. If you’ve met one person with a disability, that is exactly what you have done, met ONE person with a disability. Don’t assume the next person with a disability you meet has the same preferences. Ask questions when you don’t know and learn from each individual you interact with.

Someone isn’t inspirational because they have a disability. A person is inspirational if they’ve accomplished something great, with or without a disability. Although your intent could be complementary, calling someone “inspirational” may be taken as belittling. If no one praised you for travelling to a business meeting, why gush over this for someone else?


Your impact in creating an inclusive culture  

Provide accessible content. Use built-in accessibility checkers to ensure those who are low vision or blind can consume the content. If you are providing hard copies of materials, ensure you have an electronic version you can share. Add captioning and audio description to videos.

Reevaluate team events. If your team moral events haven’t changed in a decade, it may be worth taking a closer look. We’ve all heard about “bro culture” and avoiding team bonding events that are centered around drinking, but have you also considered the accessibility of your events? For example, is the space physically accessible for someone with a mobility disability? Does the activity include an environment with bright lights and loud noises that someone with autism could be sensitive to?

Implement inclusive meeting practices. Preset an agenda and share resources in advance. Not only does this drive efficiency and collaboration, but it also creates inclusion. Individuals will have more time to process information and come prepared to contribute. You can also consider alternative ways for someone to provide their input – verbally, adding a comment to the document, via IM, or after the meeting in a one-on-one conversation.

Remove barriers in the hiring process. If you’re a Recruiter or Hiring Manager, evaluate the accessibility of your application process. If you’re tapped to interview a candidate, consider the goals of your questions. What are you trying to evaluate? Is there another way to ask the same question that may be more inclusive? For example, a common interview technique is to ask a candidate to explain a particular concept to the interviewer as if they were a child. The intent is likely to evaluate the candidate’s knowledge of the concept - can they break down the concept into easy-to-understand pieces? However, instead of showcasing the candidate’s subject matter expertise, it may unknowingly be screening out talent because it is evaluating their communication skills rather than their subject matter expertise.

Uncover your own potential biases. We all have biases, including some we don’t even realize we have. Take Harvard’s Disability Implicit Association Test and block 15 minutes on your calendar to reflect on the results.


Evaluate your organization’s disability equity. Disability:IN provides a compressive benchmarking tool for disability inclusion.  

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