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Disabilities and the Silent Workplace Struggle

More than one billion people, or 15% of the global population, have a disability, including 1 in 4 Americans, according to the 2021 Disability Equality Index. Despite the fact that as many as one in four of our potential candidates and even employees have a disability, not everyone feels comfortable disclosing their disability at work. 

We cannot focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging without creating a safe, open, and inviting space for people with disabilities. It is clear that many people who have a disability – be it mental or physical, struggle silently at work. As a result, many go without accommodations that would benefit them and augment their work for fear of speaking up. 

As an employer, starting the conversation around disability and opening up space for your employees to disclose their disability and ask for accommodations is key to creating an inclusive workplace. 

Below, we share four practical ways to include those with disabilities throughout the hiring process and set the stage for safety and belonging once hired. 

1. The language used in job descriptions

Including those with disabilities gives us access to an untapped pool of qualified candidates. Without the perspectives, strengths, and abilities of a significant portion (25%) of the population, we miss out on their innovation and creativity.

Our words have the opportunity to attract and include or to push diverse and qualified candidates away from applying. We often detract people with disabilities by using problematic words or including unnecessary language unrelated to the job’s key responsibilities. Certain groups, like those with disabilities, might be discouraged from applying for reasons that have nothing to do with their skills and qualifications for a job. 

Leverage technology to eliminate problematic words in your job descriptions and determine the core competencies of the job ahead of time to attract a larger pool of qualified candidates. 

2. Accommodations and Accessibility 

Reactively engaging those with disabilities does not communicate a sense of belonging, nor does it enable a consistent candidate experience. Adopting an effective accommodations policy for recruiting, screening, and interviewing creates an equitable opportunity for all candidates. 

Take the time to audit your recruitment funnel from the point of application all the way to hire. SHRM’s Employing Abilities at Work suggests looking for places where applicants with disabilities might be getting lost within the system or shut out entirely. Are your forms or website accessible or available in alternative formats? Do you open up space for candidates to ask for accommodations?   

3. Unconscious bias in resume screening

When we review resumes, we often make snap decisions based on hidden preferences or biases. If we are not used to interacting with people with disabilities or feel discomfort in doing so, these unconscious biases are sure to influence the way we decide who is qualified and who is not. 

One study found that “employers expressed interest in candidates who disclosed a disability about 26 percent less frequently than in candidates who did not.” AI-based screening tools can also perpetuate biases. This is because programming and automation “will never be able to account for all of the different ways that disabled people move through the world” (Fast Company). 

Glancing at a resume, small details like associations and affiliations that may reveal some form of disability can impact whether the candidate is offered an interview or not. We can give every candidate a fair opportunity by using research-based technology that redacts periphery information. This allows the reviewer to focus on the core competencies of the job. 

4. Disclosure and representation

“Disclosure empowers workers with disabilities to ask for accommodations and is linked to higher engagement, career satisfaction, and performance” (Disability Equality Index 2021). How can you give your candidates and employees the space to disclose their disability, contributing to a sense of belonging, while assuring them the disclosure will not have an adverse impact on their opportunity? 

Understand that many people may be dealing with disabilities that are new or have experienced discrimination because of their disabilities in the past. Don’t assume that if someone needs or would benefit from an accommodation they will ask for it. Share your accommodations policy upfront. Open up the conversation. Create an environment where people feel comfortable. This includes open communication at all stages of the recruiting process and throughout all levels of the organization.

Representation is instrumental in helping candidates, and employees, feel comfortable with disclosure. This is especially important in senior leadership, where “only 10% of companies have a senior executive who identifies as a person with a disability” (Disability Equality Index 2021). Seeing those around you freely and openly talk about their disabilities communicates that it is ok to bring your whole self to work.  

Including Abilities

Create a culture where your candidates and employees of all abilities can offer a fresh perspective and experience. Auditing your processes, leveraging technology, increasing representation, and inviting disclosure are all things you can do as a company to become comfortable with engaging, accommodating, and including employees with disabilities.