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5 Ways Workplaces Can Be More Disability-Friendly

October is Disability Employment Awareness Month, but the intersection between disability and employment is important to be mindful of all year.  As of 2020, people with disabilities in the United States have a 12.6 percent unemployment rate — nearly five percent higher than the unemployment rate for their able-bodied counterparts. This disparity exists largely due to workplace ableism and reluctance to hire and accommodate people with disabilities.  Workplaces of all types need to become more disability-friendly in order to retain employees with disabilities, so here are five things employers can do year-round to make their workplace more welcoming to disabled workers.

1. Set realistic productivity expectations for all employees.

While it may be tempting to force employees to cram 10 hours of work into an eight-hour workday, ensuring that productivity expectations are realistic and taking individual productivity levels into account can help people with disabilities thrive at work.  Even showing up to the office may be difficult for some disabled employees, so feeling pressured to work extra in order to meet expectations or quotas may seriously harm their physical and mental health.  Tempering workplace expectations for all employees can make people with disabilities feel safe to voice concerns about their own productivity at work — if they see that their peers’ fluctuations in productivity levels are accepted, they may be more likely to ask for accommodations that will keep them at their healthiest instead of constantly worrying about their own productivity.

2. Have a wide variety of workspace setups available for employees with disabilities.

With offices frequently incorporating standing desks, exercise ball desk chairs, and other more “active” forms of workspaces, employees with disabilities may feel like their needs have gone by the wayside.  It’s crucial for employers to consider that disabilities are not “one size fits all,” and people with different types of disabilities may require different types of workspaces.  A disability-friendly office would have standing desks or exercise ball chairs available for those whose disabilities manifest in hyperactivity, incorporate traditional office chairs for those who have difficulty with standing or balance and allow employees to bring in items that could make sitting for long periods of time more comfortable for their bodies.  If employees see that they have options that suit their needs without being expected to ask for them, they may feel more at home when they go to the office.

3. Don’t speak poorly of workplace accommodations.

Accommodating employees with disabilities is a legal necessity, but the attitude surrounding those accommodations can set the tone for the entire workplace.  Keeping track of specific accommodations or finding reasonable ways to accommodate employees may sometimes seem difficult, but if you have reservations about implementing specific accommodations, don’t let your biases bleed into the workplace.  If disabled employees hear higher-ups grumbling about honoring their accommodations, they may feel reluctant to ask for future accommodations or use the ones they are currently allowed.  Accommodations level the playing field in the office and can improve health and productivity — as long as supervisors are empathetic about workers’ needs.

4. Listen to potential employees who disclose their health conditions in job interviews.

If you routinely interview job candidates, you likely encounter potential employees who disclose their disabilities in their job interviews.  Instead of worrying that a potential new employee may frequently miss work on account of their health or may not be able to perform certain job functions as “well” as able-bodied new hires, listen to how these candidates frame their health conditions.  Chances are, candidates with disabilities who disclose will share how they resourcefully approach job duties or how their conditions have instilled attributes that would benefit your workplace.  Truly understanding how a job seeker with a disability can use their experiences to excel at their job will allow candidates of all abilities greater opportunities to positively contribute to your company.

5. Allow employees to work from home.

Since COVID-19 began impacting the world, businesses of all types have created organizational structures that allow their employees to work from home, but as the coronavirus becomes less of a threat, many workplaces are mandating that their employees return to the office.  However, for some people with disabilities, commuting to work is logistically difficult and sitting in one position for hours on end isn’t necessarily conducive to good health.  Allowing employees to choose whether to work in-person or remotely or implementing a combination of the two could allow employees with disabilities to rest their bodies and minds in order to be able to fully contribute to the workplace.  Keeping the option of at-home work on the table could help employees with disabilities feel like their workplace truly respects their needs.

Getty image by Rudzhan Nagiev.