So, you’re sold on the value and importance of inclusion. You know that it’s beneficial to your employees, and profitable for your bottom line.
Despite our best intentions, most of us don’t know how to be inclusive of diverse groups. People with disabilities, in particular, are often left out of discussions around inclusion because they face various forms of social, cultural and even legal discrimination. In the workplace, this means that they sometimes may not be treated inclusively or given appropriate accommodations.
So, in order to truly understand diversity and embody inclusivity, we need to learn how to turn good intentions into proactive behaviors. Here are some ideas to help you behave inclusively toward people with disabilities:
1. Don’t Assume What Is or Isn’t Possible
Disabilities affect all different types of people. So, although those with disabilities may share some similar experiences or challenges, they represent a highly diverse group of individuals. They may come from different cultural, educational, or socioeconomic backgrounds, and they may live with a physical, cognitive, or other type of disability that has varying effects on their daily life. And, of course, a person’s disability may not necessarily be obvious to the outside observer.
All of that in mind, it’s often inaccurate—and potentially offensive—to presume what someone’s capabilities are. For example, someone who has hearing loss may be perfectly adept at reading lips, so it would probably come across as condescending to speak very loudly or make broad gesticulations when speaking to them.
2. Use Appropriate Language
Part of the reason that people with disabilities face stigma is that many terms to describe them are demeaning or dehumanizing. Using more inclusive language can help combat this stigma and make people with disabilities feel respected and valued. “Handicapped” and “crippled” are some common descriptors to avoid. Instead, it’s often best to simply refer to someone’s disability for what it is. If someone wears a trach collar, call it a trach collar. If they have cerebral palsy, call it cerebral palsy.
Another problem is that language surrounding people with disabilities often focuses on the disability rather than the person. A disability may be part of a person’s identity, but it’s not who they are entirely. Instead of describing someone as “special needs” or “wheelchair-bound,” you can say that they “require accommodations” or “use a wheelchair.” It’s also best to describe accessible spaces or resources as such. “Accessible parking” is a more inclusive sentiment than “handicapped parking,” for example. Here is an article from Colorado State University that identifies other problematic terms and some appropriate substitutions.
3. Get Creative!
It’s pretty standard for employers to offer “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities, but what that entails may be highly variable depending upon the person and the position they fulfill.
Start with the job posting. Ask yourself what skills, behaviors or abilities are really necessary for the position, versus those with which you can dispense. Consider, for example, whether you can create opportunities for flexible hours or telecommuting. It’s also a good idea to make sure that portals for online applications, as well as office computers and programs, are accessible for disabled users. For instance, you can make a point of ordering larger monitors for desktop computers so they are more accessible to those with partial sight. Learn more about accessible web content here.
You can also help make work spaces and events accessible to colleagues. This may involve purchasing a particular type of desk or other office supplies. You can also shift or remove furniture and other barriers to clear a space for wheelchair users, and host work-related activities in accessible buildings or restaurants.
4. Equal Opportunity Goes Beyond Hiring
Unfortunately, it’s more common for people with disabilities to get overlooked for promotions. Of course, this has negative repercussions for everyone because it makes people with disabilities feel less valued and included, which often also lowers engagement and productivity.
Make sure that people with disabilities are equitably promoted and given opportunities for growth. Reduce bias as much as possible by conferring with colleagues of diverse backgrounds and evaluating your reasoning for making decisions. In addition to cultivating diversity in leadership roles, this is a way to help spark motivation and create a model of inclusion for others.
5. Seek Input From People With Disabilities
It seems obvious, but it’s worth pointing out: The best way to create an inclusive environment for people with disabilities, is to ask people with disabilities. Foster an environment of inclusivity by asking employees with disabilities how they would like their disability to be addressed (if at all), what accommodations or support they might need (if any), in addition to how well they feel the organization promotes accessibility and inclusion.
When it comes to inclusion, implementation of policies is arguably more important than the policies themselves. It’s important to recognize the value of inclusion, yes. But without adopting inclusive behaviors and ensuring that people at all levels of an organization are doing the same, it’s impossible to truly engage employees and therefore reap the benefits of diverse work teams.
Of course, in order to adopt these behaviors, we have to be willing to accept that our biases play a role in our perceptions and relationships. Remind yourself to take small steps every day so you can begin to challenge these biases and reform any unhelpful habits.