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We have all heard how important an inclusive workplace is and how it encompasses five different generations of workers. Each generation brings its own communication styles, complexities, priorities, and so much more. With all these differences, how can we manage other dimensions of diversity? Is this an unprecedented challenge or is it an incredible opportunity for change? When we think about diversity and an inclusive workplace, is disability part of the conversation? If so, is disability viewed with a compliance lens, as a competitive advantage, or just as part of the human condition? Believe it or not, all of us have a connection with disability since this demographic group represents twenty percent of the U.S. population. Therefore, it is most likely that either you, a family member, or someone in your workplace or community might have a visible or non-visible impairment.

Why is Disability Still Stigmatized?

Over the years, many marginalized groups have made significant strides in gaining employment, but individuals with disabilities have lagged behind in spite of high educational attainment and vocational training. While there are several theories about the causes of unemployment, one has remained fairly constant: businesses still report challenges in hiring and retaining workers with disabilities. To reduce these employment barriers, it is imperative that common misperceptions and unconscious bias towards disability be addressed and best practices be shared to change employers’ mindsets. A first step toward this goal is recognizing that we all have some form of bias whether we admit to it or not. If you are wondering about your possible bias towards issues and individuals, you may want to consider taking an Implicit Association Test, available at Project Implicit, which measures attitudes and beliefs that we have, but either do not realize or are unwilling to convey to others.

Tips for Avoiding Biases

The first step in ensuring a fair hiring and employment process includes a review of job descriptions to assess their accuracy and relevance to reflect realistic expectations during the selection and performance evaluation process. This review will facilitate not only who gets hired, but also who gets trained, mentored, and promoted. Identifying essential functions and qualifications are imperative for both workers and employers as the right type of skills are critical to productivity and performance. To gain access to candidates with disabilities who possess the right talent, employers should focus on targeted outreach and work with subject matter experts in the field of disability and employment. There are a wealth of resources and expertise available in each community, including job placement professionals representing the state vocational rehabilitation system, as well as private providers who can not only refer qualified candidates for open positions, but could also advise about reasonable accommodations and support the newly-hired employee through job coaching services.

At the other end of the equation, companies need organizational commitment to hiring and retaining employees with disabilities that includes top and middle management support to be truly effective. Encouraging honest discussions about disability in the workplace and recognizing the multitude of abilities and strengths represented by workers with disabilities are also vital. Training hiring managers and employees about different types of disabilities and dispelling common misconceptions are positive ways to change the dialogue around disability. Another essential hiring and inclusion strategy is expanding recruitment efforts and including students with disabilities for internships, co-ops, and rotational programs. Establishing effective accommodation practices, including a centralized budget, is another critical best practice, which is beneficial for both current and future employees. To improve performance and job retention, purposeful mentoring, coaching, and frequent feedback have also been found effective.

Too often, we concentrate on political correctness rather than just being courteous and seeking a way to best work together within our increasingly diverse workplace. Solid HR practices and cultural competency are the key to attracting and retaining emerging talent, including workers with disabilities. Most businesses just need to recalibrate their mindset on the importance and value of disability inclusion to become an employer of choice for this large and diverse community of talent.


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