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COVID showed us how to create work that finally includes people with disabilities

One in four Americans has a disability. This advocate for the community says companies should make disability inclusion part of their DEI work.

COVID showed us how to create work that finally includes people with disabilities
[Photo: Maskot/Getty Images]

Weeks after many large U.S. employers and their workers began a new hybrid work model, the results so far are messy. Executives who said they’re excited to join their colleagues again in person aren’t showing up.  And some employees say they’d rather quit than work in the office.  

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It turns out the flexibility the pandemic forced employers to give workers—like the freedom to work from home and more control over their schedules—may be just what employees needed to be more productive and create a better, healthier life. While this flexible, more person-centered approach is new for many, it’s exactly what people with disabilities have been fighting for long before we first heard of COVID-19.  

Right now, a lot of people may be rethinking and reshaping work life to include an office setting that doesn’t feel right anymore. That experience is something very familiar to millions

 of people with disabilities.  Before the pandemic, so many people with disabilities had to adapt to workplaces and work cultures that never felt right because they were never designed with them in mind. 

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Now that more companies are embracing remote work, more employees with disabilities have the power to set their own terms, which is a major breakthrough. If employers are not mindful of this shift however, they could damage the progress finally being made for a substantial and widely overlooked section of the workforce.  


Related: I’ve asked to work remotely for years


If approached with an open mind, employers can create a new hybrid work model that works for all people. The pandemic gives us a blueprint.

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An inclusive hybrid workplace starts with the understanding that every role in your organization is appropriate for people of all abilities and cultural backgrounds. A “perfect candidate” is one who has the essential skills and is eager to do the work. Nothing more.  

For example, Stephen and Ben both have intellectual disabilities and struggled to find opportunities that allowed them to put their skills to work. That is until their current employer, a company that builds school buildings in the Seattle area, made a commitment to include people with disabilities in its workforce. First, the company recognized each individual’s abilities and matched them to roles that required those skills. Then with the help of a professional job coach, they implemented the quick accommodations needed to ensure mutual success. Stephen now handles data entry and supports office management and Ben assists leads on construction sites.

Simply put, Inclusion is good for business and organizations should expect it to have a material impact on their profits and loss.  Companies that employ people with disabilities report improved product quality, higher customer satisfaction, greater employee retention, and higher profits.

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Related: 3 disabled workers: a ‘return to normal’ makes work inaccessible


For example, Walgreens reported 20% higher productivity in spaces where 50% of employees have disabilities. Employees with disabilities at Amazon sites achieved 37% higher work quality than their non-disabled colleagues, along with a perfect safety record and better attendance.   

Inclusion is also the perfect way for companies address the

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Serious  labor shortages we’ve seen across industries as the Great Resignation continues to reshape our economy. So how do you get there? Suspend disbelief, and take these few first steps: 

  • Make disability inclusion part of DEI work. An estimated one in four Americans has a disability. Is disability considered in your company’s DEI initiatives? Are people with disabilities part of your organization’s DEI task force? Also recognize diversity among the disability community and involve individuals with physical, cognitive, sensory and mental health disabilities and people with disabilities who identify as BIPOC.   
  • Throw out talent acquisition norms.  Skip the buzzwords like “fast-paced” and “high energy,” which could deter potential employees from applying to open positions. Instead of telling employees how a job should be done, explain what success looks like. Consider a “hands-on” interview where possible. Let the candidate show you they can perform the work, rather than assume they cannot based on a verbal response.   An individual with autism for example, may not excel in an expressive interaction like a job interview. That, however, is not an accurate predictor of their actual ability to do the job.   
  • Listen to learn. In addition to being flexible and giving them the tools they need, ask your employees what makes them feel more included. Feeling included is specific to each individual, so do your best to create the environment and experience they want, and not just what you   assume they need.  

Rather than trying to shove everyone back into the broken boxes of the past, we have an incredible opportunity to reopen and reshape our workplaces to the benefit of employees, employers, and the entire U.S. economy.  It will be a long journey, but one that’s worth the work.  


Gene Boes is the CEO of Northwest Center, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works with employers (Microsoft and Amazon, included) to place people with disabilities in appropriate, meaningful jobs.

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