Disability Pride Month: Inclusion and Accessibility in the Professional Workplace

As Disability Pride Month draws to a close, it’s an opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come as disabled people pursuing equity and inclusion, and the changes we still want to see happen in the world.

Disability Pride started in the US as a celebration of disabled peoples’ activism as they fought for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which came into law in July 1990. It is becoming more prominent worldwide, particularly in the UK, as people take the time to celebrate disabled voices and champion disabled rights.

As disabled activist and founder of the Valuable 500 Caroline Casey wrote on 4 July: “This month is for the disabled community by the disabled community, and it is about embracing what our conditions are and the value that we all have.”

The celebration has its roots in activism and changing the law for a fairer society – and particularly in the realm of workers’ rights and equal access to employment.

The conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in our workplaces has been particularly active during the pandemic. Companies’ DEI efforts now form a significant plank of environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives, and business leaders are interested in tracking and measuring them, while developing standards for DEI metrics.

iResearch Services July pulse survey included 200 HR professionals and DEI specialists across a range of sectors in the UK and US. We asked five questions, to gain a snapshot of the business community’s current thinking on issues of disability access and inclusion.

Although generally positive about their companies’ efforts around disability inclusion and awareness, the majority of respondents still feel that more needs to be done. Our pulse survey also showed a gap between positive attitudes towards building awareness and supportive corporate culture and seeing practical changes to workplaces in the form of concrete support and assistance.

Supportive company cultures

We asked whether respondents felt their company is actively fostering a supportive company culture that encourages employees to disclose disabilities. This is important because, to access accommodations at work, an employee must disclose their disabilities. This relies on having an open and supportive company culture in place. If that does not exist, and an employee does not feel comfortable with disclosure, it is a serious barrier to getting accommodations that allow them to perform their job to the best of their abilities.

Over three quarters (77.5%) of respondents said their company is actively working on fostering a supportive culture that encouraged disclosure.

14% indicated that while they aren’t actively working on specific supportive culture initiatives, they would like to build a supportive company culture. 8.5% said, no, they are working on other priorities.

Attracting, engaging and retaining talent

Employee wellbeing and resilience is a top concern in the wider discourse around attracting and retaining talent during the unstable times we are living through. Ensuring supportive cultures can be seen as part of this broader drive to help all employees sustain a productive career. It’s positive news that building an inclusive company culture is an active priority for the majority of HR professionals, and a next step could be building a picture of disabled employees’ perceptions of this in practice.

DEI training

The majority of companies surveyed (71.5%) include disability awareness in their DEI training. Of those who do not, most respondents indicated that it is something their company is working on. It is not a priority for 7.5% of respondents, with 3.5% indicating they do not know.

Just under 30% don’t include disability issues in their DEI training – suggesting that disability isn’t on the radar in the same way as other areas of inclusion. Women’s empowerment, racial justice, and LGBTQ+ equality are all crucial areas, but some disabled thought leaders have pointed out that disability often comes in as an afterthought in comparison. It is worth remembering that these issues do not just exist in a vacuum and taking an intersectional approach that recognizes how we all live with multiple identities, privileges and barriers to inclusion can help strengthen DEI efforts across the board.

Disability inclusion and support initiatives

Although training on general awareness of disability is high, there is a mixed picture in terms of specific disability initiatives in the workplace.

Just over half (54%) of our respondents said that there are programs to support disabled employees where they work. Taking the positive first, it means that most workplaces are running support programs for disabled people.

However, it also means that nearly half of workplaces (46%) do not have specific support initiatives in place. Of those, most indicated that they are working towards it, at 26.5% of the total. That’s over a quarter of UK and US businesses surveyed who want to work towards concrete support for their disabled employees. However, 12.5% had other priorities – one in eight – and 7% did not know. Together, that’s one in five HR professionals who are not thinking about how their business can offer disability support.

Specific disability support could look like re-envisioning the physical workplace environment through the lens of disability access. Mentoring is also a valuable strategy for developing employees from across marginalized groups, and a tool that Disability Rights UK recognizes as an important way of nurturing senior talent.

It’s important to develop these kinds of programs alongside disabled people, rather than imposing from above, or expecting disabled people to take on extra labor by themselves. Implemented well, good disability inclusion initiatives elevate the voices of disabled people in company culture, making sure employers can understand causes of exclusion and develop talent. They are also way for disabled people to be supported at work outside the framework of legally mandated accommodations.

Assistive technology

Similarly, there is more ambiguity in the picture when it comes to assistive technology in the workplace. Less than half (43.5%) of professionals surveyed said that their company used assistive technology. 36% of surveyed companies are “working towards” using assistive tech. It’s not a priority for 12.5% of respondents, and 8% did not know. This is the highest “I don’t know” response of the survey – suggesting a lack of knowledge, and potential for training, among HR professionals when it comes to using assistive technology.

Although the appetite for inclusion is high, it seems that specific assistive solutions are still not an everyday part of life at work. This is indicative that the good intentions and willingness for change we have been seeing are yet to develop fully into concrete action and practical solutions – something that takes time. It is also an interesting indicator of disabled people’s own willingness to disclose at work, as assistive technology is a part of accommodations that employers are legally required to provide – if disabled employees themselves go through the process of asking for accommodations, which requires disclosure.

Are companies doing enough?

Most HR professionals feel that their company is not doing enough in the area for disability inclusion. 50% indicated a positive response to their company’s existing efforts, but said that more can still be done, while 12% said that no, not enough is being done.

Three in ten respondents felt that their companies are doing enough, a significant minority, but still indicating that less than a third of US and UK companies are doing enough for their disabled employees. 7.5% responded “I don’t know” – again one of the higher “I don’t know” response rates in our survey, alongside assistive technology. This suggests that there is a lack of knowledge among some HR professionals when it comes to what disabled employees need and want in the workplace.

Appetite for inclusion

Overall, HR professionals’ appetite for driving disability inclusion is high, suggesting that businesses can harness that drive and expertise to make real change. However, when it comes to practical change in the workplace for disabled people, including specific support and assistive tech, we are not yet seeing a full roll-out of available resources. There is a gap between general awareness and making specific change for the people who need it.

Of course, the process of creating cultural change is complex and multifactorial. However, if businesses can capitalize on positive attitudes and receptiveness to change in the near future, we stand to both make a big difference in the working lives of disabled people, and more effectively harness the potential of this pool of talent to drive innovation. Although Disability Pride Month is drawing to a close, disability access and inclusion is a far-reaching and meaningful topic for all our everyday lives.

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