By Michael Murray, Special Guest Author, March 22, 2021

I have been so pumped to see meaningful conversations about workplace diversity and inclusion that have been happening around the country. The most progressive workplaces always include those of us with disabilities.

Creating disability-inclusive workplaces big and small, federal or private involves recognizing that people from all walks of life can make valuable contributions. Including the diverse perspectives of people with disabilities leads to innovation, creativity and new ideas that ultimately lead to better outcomes. Some organizations recognize these qualities and intentionally focus on disability employment and inclusion. According to an Accenture report, these “champions” see many benefits: 28% higher revenue, twice the net income, and 30% greater profit margins than those without a similar commitment.

So, if the bottom line shows that disability inclusion is smart policy, then how can organizations overcome resistance and fully embrace it?

Recognizing how subtle biases hurt

To create a disability-inclusive environment, employers and employees need to start by examining micro-messages and unconscious biases happening in the workplace. [Editor’s note: For training on unconscious biases, join FELTG for Honoring Diversity: Eliminating Microaggression and Bias in the Federal Workplace on April 7 from 1-3 pm.]

In a truly inclusive workplace, each person should feel they belong and that their uniqueness is valued. Often, workplaces with diversity and inclusivity aren’t the direct result of a clear policy or rule. Instead, they evolve over time from a collection of subtle, unconscious biases and micro-messages that may seem harmless on the surface. People develop certain filters of what is and isn’t acceptable, sometimes making flawed connections or maps in their brains that lead to poor solutions and lost resources.

One such unconscious bias is the “like-me” bias. Managers may unintentionally hire and have people on their teams who are similar to them, whether physically, culturally or economically. On the surface, these actions don’t immediately appear to favor one individual over another, but when digging deeper, it is often found that these practices cause managers to favor ideas from like-minded individuals, making others feel disconnected from a team and the organization as a whole. This is especially true when engaging with the disability community. For example, you have heard it said, “At least you have your health.” Though the intent may be well meaning, the use of this pleasantry unintentionally implies that having a disability is a negative attribute, which it is not. Other subtle cues in expression, tone, body language and vocabulary can further contribute to whether someone feels engaged or disengaged, included or excluded. Fortunately, biases are not fixed. Biases can change with education, intentional discussions and trainings.

Building an inclusive business culture

The path to disability inclusion is rewarding, and resources are available to help employers along the way. The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) offers a framework, developed with the help of employers who have already put in the work and found success. EARN outlines seven key elements: leadership commitment to an inclusive culture, outreach and recruiting, talent acquisition and retention, reasonable accommodations, communication of company policies, accessible information and communication technology, and accountability and continuous improvement. Plus, EARN offers strategies for tackling each area.

EARN, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), has also developed a Workplace Mental Health Toolkit. This guide helps employers understand how to foster a mental health-friendly work culture through an easy-to-follow framework known as the “4 As” – awareness, accommodations, assistance, and access.

Awareness involves strategies for educating employers and workers about mental health issues and taking action to foster a supportive workplace culture. Accommodations means providing employees with the supports they need to perform their job, such as flexible work arrangements. Assistance refers to helping employees who have, or may develop, a mental health condition, something many employers do through formal employee assistance programs (EAPs). Access encourages employers to assess company healthcare plans to ensure or increase coverage for behavioral or mental health treatment.

Additional resources for building a supportive and inclusive workplace include the Job Accommodation Network, the National Business Group on Health, and the Center for Workplace Mental Health. [Editor’s note: You can learn more about the Accommodation process during FELTG’s upcoming Reasonable Accommodation in the Federal Workplace webinar series, starting July 15.]

Making changes to established structures

Focusing on disability inclusion may mean that employers must question and change organizational structures, such as processes around recruiting, hiring, and training. Are they actively recruiting from institutions or organizations that include people with disabilities? Does the interview process unintentionally screen out people? For example, people with autism may find making eye contact hard or distracting, something that interviewers may falsely use to decide if a candidate is being forthright and engaged. Also, can onboarding or training be modified to accommodate candidates with disabilities?

If disability inclusion is a goal, then support around communication, feedback and collaboration must be available. Employers can establish diversity and inclusion councils, which can include representatives from all levels and backgrounds to develop ways to improve in this area while also serving as ambassadors to the rest of the company.

Employee resource groups also can be valuable to those seeking information or support. Including people with disabilities in each of these strategies is a must.

Leading by example

Employers who invest in and communicate their disability inclusion efforts send their workforce an important message: It is a meaningful exercise with value for everyone. Workplace diversity can improve a federal organization’s performance or a private company’s bottom line, but the benefits extend far beyond financial figures, opening the door to improved productivity, innovation, and reputation and to greater appreciation for every person’s unique gifts.

About Michael Murray

Michael Murray is the chief relationship officer for GT Independence, a national leader in financial management services for self-directed in-home and community-based care. His lifelong drive for inclusion is fueled by his experience as a person with a learning disability and ADHD. Michael is the former Director of the Employer Policy Team at the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. Michael also served as Deputy Director at the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), where he was also responsible for steering and designing the government-wide policies and programs of 56 Federal agencies throughout the country to increase Federal employment of individuals with disabilities. His lifelong drive for inclusion is fueled by his experience as a person with a learning disability and ADHD. He can be reached at MMurray@gtindependence.com

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