Why Diversity And Inclusion In The Workplace Must Include Persons With Disabilities

In recent decades, the topic of diversity and inclusion in the workplace has become a central concern to hiring managers and business leaders across virtually every industry and in companies both large and small. And with reason.

Not only are diversity and inclusion (D&I) a moral imperative, but it also makes good business sense. Studies show that companies with high levels of diversity are, on average, 33% more profitable than businesses that don’t emphasize D&I.

And yet, as the American workplace becomes more inclusive in regards to gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, there is one group that remains noticeably absent: persons with disabilities.

The Scope of the Problem

Of the more than 20 million people in the United States with some form of disability, only around 20% are actively engaged in the workforce. This despite sweeping legislation forbidding discrimination against persons with disabilities in regard to both hiring and workplace accommodations.

According to a recent study, in fact, while 90% of businesses claim to prioritize diversity in their hiring and employment practices, only 4% include persons with disabilities in their D&I initiatives.

That’s a shame because it’s simply exacerbating and perpetuating the vast social and economic injustices that persons with disabilities continue to suffer. It’s also causing employers, the labor force, and the broader community to miss out on the significant contributions disabled employees can make.

The Cost of Change

The striking absence of persons with disabilities from otherwise highly inclusive workplaces isn’t necessarily about a failure of commitment. Rather, it may simply reflect a lack of understanding of how disability might be included in a company’s D&I strategy, combined, perhaps, with the fear of the costs and risks.

The fact is that hiring and accommodating workers with disabilities does not have to be a costly endeavor. According to the Job Accommodation Network, many workplace accommodations only cost around $500, with other accommodations costing absolutely nothing.

In addition to the specialized equipment or physical modifications needed to make the workplace more accessible and functional for employees with disabilities, of course, other adjustments may also be required.

Hiring employees with disabilities will also, inevitably, require you to become more flexible in your work practices. You may find yourself incorporating more flex time or telework options into your leadership practices, but it’s not just your employees with disabilities that will benefit from these innovations.

Your other staff members will undoubtedly appreciate them too, and that’s going to revitalize your company culture and boost morale. Because even as your employees, disabled and non-disabled alike, work for you, you’ll be showing them, day after day, that you’re working for them too!

A Welcome Space

As you begin to welcome persons with disabilities, you may need to modify your work culture a bit as well.

For instance, employees with particular psychological, developmental, or behavioral needs may require the presence of an emotional support animal (ESA) to help them function throughout their workday. Making the workplace a pet-friendly one can help you attract a wide range of candidates who might otherwise have felt excluded without their ESA.

Employees with physical disabilities, likewise, might require the aid of a service animal specifically trained to perform specialized tasks for their owners. Visually impaired employees, for example, may use a service dog to help them navigate the workspace. Employees with epilepsy may use a service dog to alert them to an impending seizure.

You can open up your candidate pool significantly not only by making your campus accessible to persons with diverse physical needs but by also welcoming ESAs and service animals into your workplace.

You can also demonstrate your company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion by offering, for instance, pet insurance as a component of your employee benefits package. After all, what better way to court a qualified candidate with a disability and an ESA or service animal than to give them the resources to help care for the beloved animal that helps care for them?

The Takeaway

Diversity and inclusion are the hallmarks of the 21st-century workforce, and yet one population has been largely excluded from this increasingly inclusive environment: workers with disabilities.

Despite decades of efforts to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities, more than 80% continue to be unemployed or underemployed. Studies show that the costs to accommodate disabled workers are unexpectedly low, while the benefits to productivity and morale are quite high.

Welcoming employees with disabilities means being willing to innovate, however. It requires employers and employees alike to be flexible in their practices and for them to accept what might once have been unthinkable but could now be a joy.

Your workplace might, for example, suddenly become a pet-friendly campus. Your employee benefits package might now include pet insurance, and your employees might now enjoy the benefits of flextime or telework. And it’s all because, with the recruiting of workers with disabilities, the workplace has truly become a diverse and inclusive workplace at last.