October is a busy month for awareness. In October, we are asked to honor everything from the whimsical (Bat Appreciation and National Cookie Month) to such serious topics as Breast Cancer Awareness, LGBTQ+ History and Tackling Hunger.
Several important disability-related subjects have our attention this month as well. Advocates for Down syndrome, dyslexia, ADD and ADHD, dwarfism, spina bifida and Rett syndrome are all promoting awareness in October.
Amid all of this education and awareness, National Disability Employment Awareness Month – NDEAM – focuses on a problem shared across disability types. Employment of people with disabilities is at dismal rates, with only about 33% of disabled adults in the workforce.
In today’s world of workforce shortages, it should be a win-win for employers to tap into this underrepresented group of employees.
However, hiring disabled workers is not just a matter of throwing open the doors and hoping people with disabilities will show up. To make it a positive experience for everyone, there are some key steps that employers can take:
- Be familiar with accommodations. I imagine most of us have needed a work accommodation in our lives, whether we called it that or not. If you’ve ever asked to tweak your schedule to pick up kids from school or moved your desk to a quieter area or acquired a new piece of equipment or technology to make you more efficient, you have received an accommodation. Disability accommodations are no different, except you should be prepared to have a process for requesting and granting accommodations in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- Root out ableism in your workplace. Unintentional ableism is commonplace in our society, to the extent that we often don’t see it. But it creates significant harm to disabled workers. Commit to avoiding insults and slurs that come from disability terms, and be ready to confront any unwelcoming practices or policies that become identified.
- Encourage a growth mindset and open communication. Your disabled workers need to have a safe space where they can bring concerns or problems without being dismissed. If you make mistakes, own them, apologize and do better. (You will make mistakes.)
- Welcome disabled employees into all levels of the organization. Don’t leave it to a single token disabled employee to represent the entirety of people with disabilities. Encourage diversity in leadership roles of your business as well as entry level positions so that disabled workers have a true voice and power to create change.
I offer this advice as an employer who struggles with getting it right as well. Even though Community Connections’ mission is dedicated to supporting people with disabilities, we are far from perfecting our own employment practices. This is a journey we can all take together to make the workplace a safe and welcoming space for everyone, including disabled employees.
The reward is a committed, engaged workforce. That’s even better than a cookie.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO Community Connections Inc.