Op Ed

We Need To Do More To Include Disabled Employees

Emily Blum
October 17, 2023

In an op-ed for Crain's Chicago Business, Disability Lead Executive Director Emily Blum urges companies to move beyond compliance with the minimum, and to commit to more disability-inclusive workplaces:

Here's some remarkable news: Employment among disabled people is at an all-time high. Remote work and increased flexibility are paying off for job-seekers with disabilities, and over the last year, the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities ages 16-64 increased nearly 4 percentage points.

We've seen some of these positive trends play out here in the Chicago as diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are gradually expanding to be inclusive of disability, and many companies have revamped jobs as well as the hiring processes to be more accessible, flexible and welcoming to disabled employees.

Yet, there is also some remarkably bad news.

Despite this progress, employees with disabilities remain wary of disclosing their disability to their employers. A study earlier this year by Boston Consulting Group found most organizations report that their workforces include few disabled employees (4% to 7%), despite an actual prevalence that is much higher: 25% of employees have a disability or health condition that limits a major life activity.

This gross underestimation results in significant underinvestment in two critical areas needed for inclusive workplaces: disability support, such as accommodating access needs, including work-from-home options; and DEI strategies not only focused on hiring and retention, but also on the advancement of disabled employees.

Workplace stigma and discrimination for disabled employees are real, so it's not that surprising that most don't feel comfortable identifying as such. In fact, Boston Consulting found disabled employees are 1.5 times more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace than their nondisabled colleagues.

As the executive director of a leadership organization focused on advancing disabled leaders, I hear firsthand the challenges my members endure. Whether it is unsupportive bosses, having to fight for accommodations or getting overlooked for training and advancement opportunities, disabled people are not able to bring their full selves to work.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a moment to pay tribute to the accomplishments of disabled workers. I call on employers to not only honor their contributions, but to also recommit to creating equitable and welcoming cultures, inclusive of disability.

Here's how:

Identify and support disabled leaders and mentors. It's imperative for organizational leaders to model disability disclosure. When they do, a study by Accenture found employees are 26% more likely to be open about their own disability.

Make disability part of your DEI strategy. If disability isn't part of your DEI efforts, your business isn't doing all it can to support its current and prospective employees. Get training on disability awareness; recognize bias and stigma use inclusive language and behavior; and leverage tools that promote inclusion.

Move beyond compliance and commit to more disability-inclusive workplaces. Do more than the minimum. AskJan.org is a great place to start and it offers a workplace accommodation toolkit that provides guidance and resources for updating accommodation policies and practices.

Invest in employee resource groups. Many of our members have leadership roles within their organization's disability affinity groups. They are helping to center conversations, create welcoming spaces and even help drive business decisions that are inclusive of disabled employees and customers. These groups need management support, inclusive of sponsorship and financial backing.

Employers can create a stronger workforce by supporting a culture of disclosure and inclusion. This month, commit to ensuring your employees can show up exactly as who they are.

In our effort to support established and emerging leaders with disabilities in corporate and public service organizations, we're proud to launch our first annual Disability Leadership Summit. Join us January 23-24, 2024, and engage with a national network of professionals with disabilities working in industry and public service!

Op Ed