Does your inclusion policy make room for disability?
If your answer to the question 'does your DE&I policy specifically mention disability' is no, you’re not alone. In 2016, the Return on Disability group found that while 90% of the companies they surveyed said they prioritised diversity, only 4% had initiatives that took disability into account.
On the surface disability can seem like a niche issue. But today an estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide live with some form of disability. That’s 17% of the global population. In Europe, 1 in 4 adults. And experts say the numbers are increasing dramatically due to demographic trends and increases in chronic health conditions.
The reality is that disability affects people in every social category, from every background. And due to ageing, accidents or illness, we will all experience disability in some form during our lives in either a temporary or permanent way.
Most disabilities are hidden
There is a great diversity in the types of disabilities that people experience. Broadly speaking, they fall into two categories:
Visible disabilities: These are impairments that other people can observe with their naked eye. For instance, physical impairments and facial features that indicate a specific disability.
‘Invisible’ disabilities: These impairments are not immediately apparent. Common examples include fibromyalgia and other chronic pain conditions, autism, hearing disabilities, and anxiety disorders. Specialists estimate that the majority of disabilities that people live with fall under the ‘invisible’ umbrella - for example, one study reported that 74% of Americans with disabilities don’t use any equipment like a wheelchair that sends a visual signal to others about their impairment.
But don’t let the term ‘invisible’ fool you: these disabilities can be just as limiting as visible disabilities - and they are hardly invisible to those who experience them. Inclusion policies need to make equitable provisions for both visible and invisible disabilities, including putting in place adequate provisions for support, and challenging discrimination indiscriminately.
Barriers to access
The reality is that most societies are structured around norms that cater to the needs of non-disabled people. And beside this fact lies a harsh truth: often it's systems and processes that disable people and create barriers to access, not their impairment.
Consider that only one-third of London Underground stations currently have step-free access that allows travellers to get from street to platform without having to use escalators or stairs. The company’s working to change this, but the fact remains that those with physical impairments cannot independently make their way through 181 stations in the way that their non-disabled counterparts can. The system is designed in a way that bars their access.
Transport is often cited as a key barrier that prevents people with disabilities from accessing work opportunities, and is one factor in why the rate of workplace participation for people with disabilities is lower than that of people without disabilities (Europe: 50.8% participation vs 75% for people without disabilities). Other barriers include
Bias and discrimination in hiring and promotion processes
Lack of accessible tools and technologies
Inflexible working hours and/or location
So... with all this in mind, what can you do to address this?
Practical tips to be more inclusive of people with disabilities
Approach DE&I through an intersectional lens
Rather than looking to enable or empower specific groups within your organisation, focus on creating a culture that empowers everyone together. No one is just gay, or just from a racialised background, or just living with a disability; we are all a rich mix of different things. Take Greta Thunberg, for example: alongside having Asperger’s Syndrome she is a woman, young, white, Swedish, vegan, and many more things besides. If leaders want to empower her in the workplace, they need to acknowledge her entire identity and understand the specific barriers to participation that she encounters. Without this, any solutions they put in place will not be adequate - and may even cause additional barriers that now need to be overcome.
Understand the universal nature of disability - and address bias head on
At some point everyone in your organisation will experience living with a disability. Fact. Therefore disability can’t be viewed as something niche or extraordinary, or accommodations for disability seen as a ‘nice to have’. Look at your organisation: what barriers to access or ableist assumptions are embedded in your ways of working? Work on addressing these. Also invest in training and other resources to raise awareness about disability bias and change attitudes.
Overall, remember that by making steps to include people with disabilities you are investing in the wellbeing and support of everyone in your workforce - yourself included.
Champion flexible working
Having the flexibility to decide when and where to work can be a game-changer for those living with disabilities - particularly those whose level of impairment can vary (e.g. on certain days or in specific situations a person may experience heightened levels of anxiety. Similarly, someone may be able to use a walker on some days but on others require a wheelchair).
Looking through the intersectional lens again, flexible working doesn’t only enable people with disabilities. It is a significant enabler for people with caring responsibilities too. And anyone else who just wants to have more autonomy over building a work-life routine that suits their needs and benefits their physical and mental wellbeing!