How to include workers with disabilities in your DEI initiatives

By Jourdan Saunders

April 12, 2021
The world’s largest minority group, according to the World Bank—15% of the global population (or 1 billion people)— experiences some form of disability, whether visible or invisible. Establishing the foundation for and maintaining successful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives starts with including this significant minority. And businesses can increase their value by taking important steps to ensure members of this population are included in workplaces.

For my inclusive digital agency, I recently spoke with two of my consulting partners on their perspectives, based on their lived experiences, of why disability inclusion is important in workplaces.

Antoine Hunter, an African American, Indigenous choreographer, producer, person with a disability, and advocate for the deaf community, expresses dedication to spreading education on and respect for his peers. “I believe everyone should be a part of something with everyone having a space to learn from each other and respect each other’s differences. [I see] art as having the power to bring people together and the power to heal,” he says.

Tanisha Dayal, DEI consultant, says, “It’s imperative . . . in 2021 to stop excluding disabilities in DEI initiatives [because a] community gets ignored or sidelined because of a negative and preconceived stigma.”

Honoring the heterogenous dynamics that every individual has to offer would actually be more advantageous/beneficial in achieving impactful productivity, where there is an evolved and safe company culture that showcases the unity of humanity with variegated possibilities.

The harsher reality is a far cry from what DEI initiatives offer, or rather promise. Serious barriers exist that allow unchecked discrimination to persist. The fact that “disabled individuals” are clumped together into ableist terminologies itself downplays the achievements and struggles to attain “equity” at work and in public life.

When developing the models of DEI in your organization, involve individuals with lived experiences who can guide you in executing a model-prototype that can withstand a thorough assessment as to whether it is an impartially efficient model that adheres to the incorporation of the best talent across the world.

Actionable ways to advance disability inclusion

    Get the conversation going. Conversations within companies addressing intersectionality create opportunities that allow individuals to express their lived experiences, which are outside of our own experiences and perspectives. In a recent Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) article, the term intersectionality, which was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, is reexamined: “The term intersectionality recognizes that individuals experience discrimination based on multiple and intersecting identities, including race, religion, ethnicity, migrant status, sexual identity, sexual orientation, disability, age, or socioeconomic status.”

    Aubrey Blanche, director of equitable design, product & people at Culture Amp, shares in a 2018 article for First Round Review: “Intersectionality sounds like this big fancy word, but what it really means is that we all have layers. We all contain multitudes, so we need to embrace that,” Blanche explains. “Women isn’t some blanket group. It’s incredibly diverse. When you focus on gender parity only, that leads to the erasure of queer women, people of color, those with disabilities, veterans, you name it.” And Blanche knows this firsthand. “You might look at me and just see a woman,” she says. “But I’m also Latina and mixed race. And I came out as bisexual in college. I have long-term disabilities. So I get what it means to have an invisible disadvantage or have a layer of my identity ignored.”

    Get specific. Commitment to sustainable change over time must start with establishing specific actionable items on agendas that include people with disabilities in workplaces. Establish long-term commitment and accountability through ongoing actions such as partnering with disability organizations to build out inclusive and accessible hiring policies and practices, establishing a talent pipeline for recruitment that includes people with disabilities, and developing a culture of inclusion and accessibility.

    Fill top-level roles. Hiring people with disabilities for leadership roles provides the company with diversity, wide-ranging perspectives, and valuable skills. Companies can learn from these leaders and they can help build more comprehensive DEI policies to create an inclusive and accessible workplace for all employees. In a recent Time magazine article, the writer details the Biden administration’s “aim to prioritize people with disabilities.” In a history-making moment, the White House “named a disability policy director to sit on its domestic policy council and ensure the government is prioritizing Americans with disabilities—including those with lingering disabilities caused by COVID-19.”

    Embed within the culture. It is important to have a company culture that welcomes people with disabilities prior to them being hired for a position. The culture is a thread that is interlaced into each area of the company, from its values to its recruitment process, efforts to retain employees and provide leadership opportunities for growth, to many other areas. Companies like Accenture, MarriottMicrosoft, and PNC have company cultures that prioritize disability inclusion and accessibility.

Including people with disabilities in DEI initiatives is imperative. Executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles stated in a blog post: “The population of people with disabilities is fundamentally different from other populations in ways that must be thoughtfully considered in developing effective inclusion policies and programs.” As we continue to advance DEI initiatives it is increasingly important for businesses and organizations promising change to include the world’s largest minority group.

Jourdan Saunders, MS, CCC-SLP, is the CEO and founder of the Resource Key, an inclusive digital agency supporting business marketing departments with inclusive and accessible social media.

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