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What is Disability Inclusion?

“What do you do for a living?” It’s a harmless question asked in just about every single social situation when getting to know someone new. But I dread it because I know it is complicated to explain how and why I do what I do. The practice of disability inclusion requires an explanation of the two words “disability” and “inclusion”. Then the further qualification of the fact that I focus on the niche of disability inclusion in the workplace wraps it up. Typically I hope you have a comfy chair, something to drink and about 20 minutes.

I know I need to get better at explaining this – so I have narrowed it down to what I think is the essential aspects of explaining "What is Disability Inclusion in the Workplace?"

First, let’s hone in on what “disability” means and whom that includes –

The term disability is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as “a mental or physical condition that limits one or more major life activities”. Which typically does not add clarity. I ttry to speak about the breadth of who that involves because otherwise we tend to only think of a few instances of disability that we have seen in the media – people with physical characteristics that we recognize – Down Syndrome, Blindness, Deaf, Wheelchair users, etc. However, that is only the people with “apparent disabilities” (the ones you can notice right away because you can see them) - and only 25% of disabilities are apparent. So, of the 56 million (or so) Americans with disabilities, you would only recognize approximately 14 million of them! And although that sounds like a big number, it means that for each 100 people you have met in your life, you knew that 5 of them had disabilities because you could see it, but it also means that an additional 15 of them have disabilities and you didn’t even know it. I bring this point up to simply show that although the definition and visibility of disability makes it seem irrelevant, disability is actually a very common experience and YOU are experiencing many more people with disabilities than you realize. So, people with disabilities are 20% of the US population and you are interacting with them all of the time, you just didn’t realize it… kind of like religion, although there are some obvious signs, typically you cannot tell what religion a person practices just by just looking at them.

Second, let’s define inclusion by focusing on describing what that looks like in a workplace. Inclusion requires intention. Unfortunately, in our society disability creates stigma and it is a population that has faced a lot of discrimination in the past and as a result, most workplaces are not very inclusive of people with disabilities yet. And in those workplaces that do have employees with disabilities, those employees do not disclose their disabilities unless it is absolutely necessary. Therefore, from a cultural perspective, disability is not a recognized or a familiar factor in the workplace even though there are employees with disabilities already there. This mismatch of the makeup of our workforce with what is “acceptable topics of discussion” proliferates the efforts of employees to hide their disabilities. So, when a company wants the benefits of an inclusive workplace (see #whyhirepwd series for more info), that company is required to put forward effort to change their culture and the experience of their current employees who have disabilities.

Here is the third key of what is disability inclusion: defining employment. Because there is a history in the US to find ways to use people with disabilities that may look like work but isn’t actually employment in their workforce. Below are three examples, can you identify which one is disability inclusion employment?

  • The first situation is when an office allows people with disabilities (typically students) to volunteer in a job or when performance standards are significantly lowered.

  • The second is when a typical grocery store with a cashier and a “bagger” with an obvious disability. [Although this shopping experience is being replaced by automated check-out stands, please stick with me for a minute because the example is one we are all familiar with.]

  • The final example is a factory or similar workplace where a group of people with disabilities come in together, leave together, perform work that is different than everyone else and is supervised by a coach who travels with them and controls their workflow. Although there may be some social interaction between the employees and these workers, there is not a meaningful integration of co-workers and colleagues.

Do you see the differences? The keys are who is the employer, who controls the work, and integration within the entire organization. Unfortunately, most Americans see these all as similar when actually, the second example is the only example of real disability inclusion in the workplace. The first and third examples just encourage the misperception of the stereotypes that employing a person with a disability is a charitable act and ignores all the benefits of actual disability inclusive employment.

So, without getting too far into the “why”, “when”, “where” or “who” and not touching the “how”, the essence of the “what” of disability inclusion is the intentional actions to change culture and process, as needed, to allow and encourage existing employees with all types of disabilities to bring their “full selves” to the workplace and demonstrate their role to enhance corporate profitability.

woman drinking from glass, sitting on floor surrounded by crumpled paper and typewriter in front of her
Why is it so hard to explain disability inclusion?

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