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The truth about employees with disabilities in the workplace

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9 mins

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are pillars of a successful, modern workplace. At every company, current employees and prospective new hires alike should feel that they have an equal opportunity to work and grow their careers.

Thankfully, that's one of the key protections in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, as well as transportation, public accommodations, and more.

It's not enough to simply hire job candidates with disabilities, and hope for the best. Businesses must put in place measures that make the lives of people with disabilities comfortable for them to work. Embracing disability in the workplace promises an array of benefits to businesses.

Unfortunately, some companies are still reluctant to fully embrace disabilities in the workplace. Here, we dig into why that is. We'll also detail what companies stand to gain and the steps they need to take to make it happen.

Misconceptions about disabilities in the workplace

One reason why companies may hold back is the misconception that the cost of hiring and accommodating employees with disabilities will be high.

Hiring managers point out that it might cost more to hire such candidates due to job modifications, installing accessibility features in their buildings, the need for specific expertise, constraints of managing performance, and the assumed inherent risks of hiring individuals with disabilities.

This couldn't be any further from the truth.

Accommodation isn’t all that expensive

Lack of accommodation in company office space may feel like an immediate barrier. But implementing features like ramps alongside stairs doesn’t always have to be difficult or expensive. In fact, it is a one-time expenditure that props the business up for the opportunity of hiring more people with disabilities later on. Even better, most of these accommodations are easily available and affordable. Besides, employers are commonly encouraged to install these features into their buildings early on instead of retrofitting them. In fact, the tax incentives that come with hiring people with disabilities even help reduce the ad hoc costs of installing accommodation features.

Disability complexities aren’t universal

Employers often assume that they will need extensive expertise to help deal with employee disabilities. This can turn into an expense, which is why some businesses decide to forego it all. Instead, employers should ask employees for what they need to commit to their role instead of assuming the kind of complexities they face. Some employees with a disability might, in fact, require the same level of support as ordinary employees. A well-outlined job description might suffice.

Employees have to be treated equally

Some employers worry that treating employees with disabilities in the workplace under the same scrutiny as the rest of the staff members might make them seem discriminatory. As a result, the risk of letting such employees do their jobs with less performance management can be quite costly, especially when they make mistakes. The truth is that, when embracing disabilities in the workplace, employees with a disability should not get a pass for poor performance. In fact, it might be discriminatory to do so. All employees should be treated with the same level of respect, and held to the appropriate level of accountability based on their job descriptions.

Job modification is limited

Job modification might not always be necessary when hiring people with disabilities. Some might manage to work like everyone else. For instance, an employee who uses a wheelchair can still file electronic documents, though they may have an issue filing physical ones.

Sometimes, the limitation that employers put on others might not always be the case. For complex situations, businesses can consider job carving. This involves creating separate positions in the workplace by taking roles from other tasks. Other than creating a new opportunity for someone else, this can help free up time for other employees to concentrate on strategic initiatives.

Why inclusivity is great for business

Access to a better talent pool

A lot goes into finding the right candidate for a job. Having the proper skills and qualifications to succeed in the position is not enough. They also need to have the drive to stay motivated in the role, oftentimes for the long haul. After all, it is cheaper to retain an employee than to hire a new one.

It is, of course, highly discriminatory and illegal to ignore job applicants due to the disabilities they disclose. Ethics and legality aside, this actually offers tremendous business upside for progressive companies. Unfortunately, it is still common for talent pools of people with disabilities who possess certain skills to go untapped. Such people have a high chance of remaining in your business for a long time, as long as you offer them the right support. In fact, they may also have a lower chance of taking sick days in comparison to other employees, which is a win for your business.

Attract a bigger customer base

Employees with disabilities will have a better chance of sympathizing with customers or clients who face similar circumstances. For instance, if you have a deaf customer, deaf employees can easily communicate with them through sign language. As a result, such customers have a higher chance of sticking with your business since they feel accepted when interacting with you. Also, your business's public image will improve, attracting more customers.

Boosting productivity and creativity

Embracing disabilities in the workplace is a sure way to raise the levels of diversity in your workplace. According to Forbes, diverse companies have the ability to produce 19% more revenue than their counterparts. This is because it ensures that there is a wide scope of ideas, minds, and approaches to problems and their solutions.

The different people involved in the problem-solving process can easily identify solutions and come up with innovations that will increase the overall profitability of your business. For instance, employees with a disability might come up with ideas on how to make one of your products more inclusive, which opens your business up to an entirely new market.

Increasing employee morale

Studies show that members of today's workforce are more interested in working for a purpose than ever before. Modern employees want to know that their roles at companies are helping others for the better. Hiring individuals with disabilities advances this mission.

Other than the fact that your business supports people with disabilities, the aspect of considering disabled people throughout the decision-making process of your business is also essential. It encourages employees to wake up every day and go to work, especially considering that some employees might have disabled loved ones at home.

How to empower employees with disabilities in your workplace

Embracing disabilities in the workplace goes well beyond the hiring process. Your company needs to foster an inclusive environment backed by long-term strategies and support systems to set people with disabilities up for success.

Implement company-wide training on disability inclusion

Hire a consultant to help with your company-wide training on disability inclusion. The consultant should train everyone, from c-suite executives all the way down to entry-level employees. Since c-suite executives are key decision-makers, they need to understand the value in the hiring of people with disabilities and considering them in their decisions. It's equally important for company culture that their peers in middle-management and entry-level employees understand this as well. Above all, this means stomping out dangerous stereotypes about hiring people with disabilities. Co-workers of these employees should be taught how to (and how not to) make colleagues with disabilities feel comfortable and included in the workplace.

Provide support for employees with disabilities

The traditional approach to supporting employees with disabilities is hiring job coaches from local disability organizations. However, your business needs to provide long-term support instead of solely relying on external organizations. This includes implementing accommodations, and assistive technology, among other forms of job aid. In most cases, it might cost little to nothing to accommodate these employees. For those aspects of the job that are costly, the cost will only be the tip of the iceberg in comparison to the benefits of working with such employees.

Employers can also take this opportunity to financially protect their non-disabled employees from the unexpected by offering disability insurance coverage in their benefits package. If an employee becomes too sick or hurt to work for a period of time, this employer-sponsored plan will replace a percentage of their income each month while they recover. Both long-term disability and short-term disability plans are available to groups.

Communicate your disability plan internally

Engaging your employees in messages that show support for people with disabilities will boost their enthusiasm and gather their support. In turn, employees will be more inclined to make the workplace more inclusive for employees with disabilities. You can create communication through presentations by leaders, social media, internal memos, and other lines of company communication. This messaging should connect the inclusion plan to the company's mission and overall goals. The idea is to create a brand of inclusivity for your business. When success stories happen, feel free to share them.

Don't forget the Golden Rule

Employees with disabilities can be as productive as ordinary employees. The key is to match the right candidate with the right job. Once you hire employees with disabilities, you need to treat them as people who possess the core skills requires for their job. Hold them to similar standards as other employees.

Don’t shy away from giving them feedback or correcting them when they make mistakes. Employees with disabilities need to feel that they are doing their best for the business, and you should help them identify areas of improvement. Such an approach to employee management can also prop up employees with disabilities for opportunities to advance in their careers as they fine-tune their skills.

The job market is overflowing with an untapped talent pool of people with disabilities, both visible and hidden. The sooner employers can tap into this pool, the better they can make their organizations. Such an approach will increase workplace engagement, employee retention rates, innovation, and employee morale. Revamp your workplace to support employees with disabilities and enjoy the benefits.

Jack Wolstenholm is the head of content at Breeze.

The information and content provided herein is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered legal, tax, investment, or financial advice, recommendation, or endorsement. Breeze does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, reliability or usefulness of any testimonials, opinions, advice, product or service offers, or other information provided here by third parties. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

— Published December 23, 2019
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