Nearly 61 million Americans — or one in four adults — have some type of disability, and many more will experience one at some point in their lives. Today’s hot job market has brought rising employment rates for Americans with disabilities, and as this population grows, so will the talent pool.
That means disability-friendly workplaces aren’t just an important step now, they’re an investment in the future. Integrating strong accessibility and inclusion initiatives helps employers attract and retain workers with disabilities — making the workplace more welcoming for everyone.
Meet employee needs to help them thrive
A “disability-friendly” workplace can be accessed by workers with diverse abilities and needs. Ensure your company is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against job seekers and employees with disabilities.
The ADA requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations,” which level the playing field by making physical workspaces accessible and giving workers the tools they need to do their jobs. These accommodations are as diverse as workers themselves, and can be tailored to their specific needs. For example, an adjustable-height desk is a reasonable accommodation for a worker using a wheelchair, while an employee with autism might work best with noise-cancelling headphones.
Workers don’t spend all day at their desks, however, so other areas of the workplace — such as the cafeteria, lounge and parking lot — should also be accessible. The same goes for offsite events; for example, at a conference or workshop, employees with physical disabilities need accessible transportation, and sign-language interpreters should be provided for hearing-impaired staff.
To learn how your company stacks up on accessibility, you should ask employees what they think. An anonymous survey is an easy way to gauge access needs without putting anyone on the spot. Anonymity is key to protect employees with invisible disabilities that they may not want to publicly disclose, such as ADHD or dyslexia.
Although the ADA applies to employers with 15 or more workers, accessibility is necessary to create a truly inclusive workplace — so go the extra mile, no matter what size your company.
Make accommodations available and easy
Increasing accessibility is easier and less expensive than you might think. In fact, two-thirds of disability accommodations in the workplace are free, and the remaining one-third cost an average of $500. Not only do these accommodations help recruit and keep workers with disabilities, but they can also benefit employees without them.
The universal (or human-centered) design approach is about designing spaces, products and systems that are accessible to the most diverse range of users. Whether ADA-mandated or for aesthetic reasons, we see universal design in many public and private spaces. For example, curb cuts on city streets enable wheelchairs, strollers and bicycles to navigate sidewalks safely and easily.
At the office, an employee who uses a wheelchair might have trouble navigating tightly-packed cubicles, but could move about an open floor plan with ease. At the same time, this design is aesthetically pleasing, encourages interactivity and caters to different work styles — benefiting everyone.
Flexible schedules and remote work are other workplace accommodations with widespread benefits. For example, employees who have autoimmune disorders with occasional flare-ups might be able to fulfill their duties better while working from home, while workers with multiple medical appointments can excel with a flexible schedule.
As flexible and remote schedules become more common in general, employers are more likely to allow them as a disability accommodation. These options have a positive impact on all workers, with 96% of professionals reporting a need for greater flexibility in their work schedules. Making this “accommodation” can increase employee morale while reducing turnover among your whole staff.
Increase disability awareness company-wide
A truly diverse workforce includes workers with disabilities as well as those of different races and genders. Inclusive companies should foster disability awareness; many free or low-cost online trainings are available on topics such as hiring veterans, recruiting new hires, disability etiquette, spotting unconscious bias and meeting ADA requirements. These themes can also be incorporated into your company’s existing diversity training.
Special events are another great way to embed inclusivity in company culture. For instance, every October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and is a great opportunity to raise awareness through events, internal communications and public-facing materials.
Mentorship and community-building are other important elements of a disability-friendly workplace. An employee resource group (ERG) offers valuable opportunities for employees with disabilities to connect, advocate and share information, and is a useful springboard for launching disability mentorship programs to support staff and interns. These initiatives are also valuable for recruitment, since they demonstrate your commitment to inclusion to job seekers.
Foster an inclusive culture through incremental change
Enhanced accessibility benefits companies and employees alike, regardless of their background. Nurture a disability-friendly environment that includes all workers — and make this an ongoing process. Accessibility is highly individualized and changes over time; keeping these conversations open lets employers adjust to workers’ shifting needs, while helping all employees perform to their fullest potential.
Make a strong company commitment to diversity today. This will only become more important as the number of workers with disabilities grows. After all, companies thrive when employees succeed.