October was National Disability Employment Awareness Month. It’s a time each year when disability organizations, elected officials, business experts, and journalists discuss the status of disabled people in the job market and workplace.
We generally start by taking stock of the size and shape of the disability employment gap. It’s big. According to a February 2019 disability employment report from the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities actively in the job market is 8%, compared to 3.7% for people without disabilities. In a time of historically high employment, disabled Americans experience recession-level unemployment. This rate typically becomes catastrophic whenever the economy plunges.
Meanwhile, we struggle to pinpoint the most common barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Specifics vary widely from person to person and workplace to workplace. But there is almost always some combination of inadequate education and work skills training, longstanding disincentives built into disability benefits and American healthcare systems, and both formal and informal discrimination by employers.
In response, disability advocates recap a familiar round of arguments for why employers should give disabled job seekers a chance. Disabled people are more capable and talented than you probably think. Hiring people with disabilities is a good deed … and good publicity for your company. Disability is an important component of healthy diversity. Disabled workers are actually more dedicated and less likely to turn over than non-disabled workers. Hiring more disbaled workers is good for the economy, because it increases productivity and reduces spending on disability-related government benefits. And most workplace accommodations are simple and inexpensive.
Unfortunately, being aware of these things doesn’t necessarily mean that either employers or their disabled employees know how to make a workplace truly welcoming for disabled people on a day to day basis. The motivation to do better may be there, but ableism, (disability prejudice), is more than just a collection of myths and misconceptions to unlearn. It’s also a set of deeply ingrained, usually unexamined habits. Beyond good intentions and the administrative competence to be “ADA compliant,” there are informal ways employers can help make workplaces more inviting and productive for current and future employees with disabilities. Here are ten of them:
1. Discourage ableist language:
When disability awareness campaigns address language, they tend to focus mostly on which terms should and shouldn’t be used to refer to disabled people. In a way, the answer is easy: use the terminology each disabled person prefers for themselves. The next step, and probably a more profound one, is to cut back on seemingly harmless but corrosive labels and adjectives we throw around everyday without thinking. For example:
• Dumb, stupid, moron, idiot, slow, challenged
• Crazy, insane, out of your mind
• Lazy, clumsy, klutz, lame, deaf as a post, blind as a bat
• Fat, skinny, short
Many people won’t consider all of these words seriously offensive in every situation. However, they are all by nature negative and insulting with a particular resonance for disabled people. Some, like “the R-word,” should be absolutely forbidden. In any case, workplaces where even the mildest of these words are constantly and gleefully used tend to grind down people with disabilities, even if they aren’t directed specifically at them. Whether or not you ban language like this outright, the important thing is to pay attention and be aware of their ableist roots and ugly effects.
2. Learn to recognize and reinterpret behaviors and communication styles that may be related to disabilities.
Both visibly obvious and invisible disabilities can sometimes affect how we come across to others. For instance:
• People with mobility impairments, and who use wheelchairs or crutches, are often seen as “too slow” and “in the way.”
• People with sensory or cognitive disabilities sometimes communicate differently in ways that others interpret as difficult to understand, inattentive, long-winded or noncommittal, humorless, or rude.
• Disabilities often distort expected “body language” … like handshakes, eye contact, and customs of sitting and standing in social situations … in ways that seem off-putting.
Before dismissing a disabled employee as awkward, rude, or “not fitting in,” managers and coworkers should consider how a person’s disability may be affecting their interactions with others.
3. Don’t make disability jokes, even if a disabled employee says it’s fine.
Tolerating or encouraging disability-themed jokes in the workplace is always a bad idea. Like insulting words, any particualr joke may be harmless. But with time and repetition, they can create an increasingly hostile and dispiriting environment for disabled workers, even if they don’t take offense right away. Plus, it’s important to remember that disabled people are often under a lot of social pressure to “go along” and be “cool with” jokes at their expense. A bit of self-deprecating humor may be OK now and then. But thoughtless, cruel, and tacky disability jokes shouldn’t be allowed to flourish in a work environment.
4. Make sure all company events, both formal and informal, are accessible.
Obviously, remember to invite disabled employees to participate fully in social events. But there are also scores of other ways you might unintentionally exclude them if you don’t pay attention. In general, it’s a good idea to avoid venues with stairs, no accessible restrooms, long walks to get there, or that lack places to sit and rest. Athletic and outdoor events are popular, but require very specific modifications to be accessible. Consider food allergies and employees who may not be able to drink alcohol. Also, employee social events should be announced well in advance, so disabeld workers can arrange transportation and other supports they might need in order to participate.
5. Provide accommodations quietly, but as often as possible, not secretly.
Don’t make a spectacle of the accommodations and special arrangements you make for disabled employees. Don’t show off, and resist the temptation to hover and micromanage in a very visible way. And try not to discuss accommodations in front of other employees.
At the same time, don’t treat accommodations like a deep dark secret. As often as possible, work with disabled employees to keep their coworkers appropriately “in the loop” about accommodations. This can help discourage speculation, gossip and resentment over why one employee is getting “special treatment” that their coworkers don’t understand.
6. Allow each disabled employee to control the terms of their own confidentiality and/or disclosure with other staff.
Different disabilities call for different levels of confidentiality and disclosure. Broadly speaking, with many individual exceptions, mental health and intellectual disabilities carry more stigma than physical and sensory disabilities. Also, invisible disabilities tend to generate more mystery, speculation, and doubt, making open discussion potentially helpful, but also risky. The key is to discuss the pros and cons of talking openly about an employee’s disability and workplace accommodations, but ultimately leaving decisions about disclosure up to each person.
7. Teach employees appropriate ways to express concern and offer help to disabled employees.
One of the ways otherwise kind, decent people go wrong in dealing with disabled people is that they overthink whether and how to express concern and offer help. Follow this simple formula: If you want to ask if a disabled coworker is OK and offer them help, then ask! Just make sure you accept their answer, no matter what it is. Don’t push. Don’t insist. And don’t get angry if they say no or don’t appreciate your offer.
8. Deal immediately with gossip and insulting comments related to employees’ disabilities.
There is no acceptable space for coworkers or managers to make fun of a disabled employee, especially in a public way, and especially if it’s because of their disability. The most “harmless” and “all in fun” disparaging remarks must be stopped immediately. You don’t have to be punitive about it, but you can’t ignore it or wait until it gets worse.
9. Don’t overlook the possibility that a disabled employee might join in the bullying of another disabled employee.
People with disabilities can be ableist too. In fact, disabled people in difficult social situations sometimes feel enormous pressure to side with their “normal” coworkers in targeting other disabled people in order to fit in. There is also a fairly common school of thought within parts of the disability community that disabled people who want to be accepted and “get ahead” should be easy-going and not complain about petty jokes and ableism. Encouraging everyone to examine and change their ableist habits can do a lot to make all disabled employees feel safe and accepted.
10. Learn something about the cultural norms, customs, and pressures of people with different kinds of disabilities and overlapping backgrounds.
There are scores of specific types of disabilities, and several broad categories. While you don’t have to know all the medical and social details of each one, it’s a good idea to have a basic understanding of the differences between diverse disability experiences. For example:
• Visible vs. invisible disabilities … which often result in very different kinds and degrees of stigma, and call for different calculations of disclosure.
• Lifelong vs. later in life disabilities … which can affect the amount of social integration a person has had, the quality of their education, and their overall comfort and experience with their own disabilities.
• Physical, sensory, intellectual, learning, and mental health disabilities, and chronic pain and chronic illness … each of which have different practical effects and call for different types of accessibility and accommodation.
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that disability and other “marginalized” identities overlap and combine in distinctive ways. People of color who are also disabled can experience both ableism and racism. Women with disabilities contend with sexism compounded by ableism. And disabled LGBTQ+ people endure a similar overlapping of identity and prejudices. It’s not necessary to understand these “intersections” fully and have all the right answers. The key is to be aware of them and open to helping as best you can.
Too often, the message of disability awareness ends up being, “People with Disabilities are just life like everyone else … they just happen to have a disability!”
This is true in terms of basic human worth and potential. Disabled people deserve to be treated with equal fairness and dignity. Disabled workers with comparable traIning and experience have equal potential for workplace success. And some disabled people come ready to work on day one, requiring little or no accommodation, either practical or social.
But disabilities are real. Being qualified and hardworking doesn’t mean disabled people are the same as other workers. Many disabled workers require both technical and social adjustments in order to succeed. Denying these differences in a misguided attempt to make disability unimportant doesn’t work.
Ableist social habits can be as profound a barrier in the workplace as stairs and narrow doorways. Paying attention to these habits can be the difference between mere nondiscrimination and actually giving disabled people both the physical and emotional space to excel and bring maximum value to the organizations they work for.