Disabilities in the Workplace: 4 Myths to Dispel

BLAST hosted a recent “Lunch and Learn” session with Nina Slota, Ph.D. Nina, who has a background in education and developmental psychology and a passion for disability studies, shared her professional and personal insights as a person living and working with visible and invisible disabilities.

Discussing disability in the workplace can be intimidating — especially because people may feel undereducated on the topic or unsure where to find resources. Dr. Slota busted four myths about disability in the workplace and offered suggestions on supporting all employees, including those with disabilities.

Myth #1: Everyone with a disability at your workplace has documented it.

Reality: While more than 40 million Americans live with some disability, only 24% of employees with disabilities have fully disclosed their condition at work

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines disability or impairment as a physical or mental impairment creating difficulties for a person to do certain things (activity limitations) or interact with their environment (participation restrictions).

The decision to disclose a disability is personal — and there’s no “typical” list of disabilities people do (or don’t) share with employers. Several factors may influence disclosure, including personal preferences, the nature of the disability, the social and cultural context, and specific circumstances. 

People with visible disabilities may be more likely to disclose their disability because it’s visible. Individuals with invisible disabilities, however — like mental health conditions, chronic pain or learning disabilities — may stay quiet for fear of potential stigma, judgment or discrimination. Organizations embracing and championing an employee-first approach can take steps to make it safe for employees to discuss and disclose their disabilities without fear of reprisal or discrimination.

Myth #2: If I can’t see someone’s disability, they don’t have one.

The Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA) defines an invisible disability as “a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses or activities. Unfortunately, the very fact that these symptoms are invisible can lead to misunderstandings, false perceptions and judgments.”

About 25% of U.S. adults live with a disability, and 20% (or more) of those disabilities are “invisible.” You may have experienced this situation if you’ve seen someone enter or exit a car parked in an accessible parking spot, but the person looks “fine.” If you know someone diagnosed with ADHD or depression, you know someone with an invisible disability.

Myth #3: People with disabilities need medical interventions to navigate their environment.

Actually, no. The social approach changes the environment to help fit the person — and it’s an intrinsic component of the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act. A medical model focuses primarily on treating a disability through medical intervention to help the person fit better into their environment. On the other hand, a social model makes immediate changes to the environment, thus making it easier for a person with an impairment to participate.

Companies are required to provide reasonable accommodations for their employees, although there are caveats if doing so would cause undue hardship. However, if an accommodation would prove costly or disruptive — or change operations fundamentally — the employer must find alternatives that wouldn’t pose difficulties to the business.

Myth #4: All accommodations are expensive and take a long time to implement.

While people’s minds might immediately jump to installing an elevator or ramps — most accommodations cost nothing for businesses to implement. According to a survey of over 3,500 employers conducted by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), of which 720 provided information about accommodation costs:

  • 49% said accommodations cost $0 to implement.
  • 43% said accommodations carried a one-time cost to implement (an average of $300).
  • 7% said accommodations involved an ongoing cost (an average YoY cost of $3,750).

Ways to support employees now

Formal accommodations are made individually and fit to specific individual needs. Dr. Slota calls them “supports” because the ideas may or may not be included in an individual’s reasonable accommodations — and many of these implementations may positively impact everyone

Think of support or accessibility as a proactive strategy for improving the work environment for all employees. Here are a few cost-free daily supports you can incorporate right now.

  • Turn on Zoom captioning, as the program has several options for creating closed captioning (CC) and subtitles for webinars or meetings.
  • Use asynchronous communications, including written, emailed or recorded instructions that employees can reference later.
  • Provide areas with varied lighting, as certain brightnesses (or light types, like fluorescent lighting) can trigger migraines, and some employees may simply be sensitive to light. 
  • Create designated quiet areas where employees can go to focus and concentrate, reset or escape the general office hubbub and stimuli.
  • Offer remote or hybrid work options so employees can work in the office or from home depending on how they feel and what’s on their calendars any given day.
  • When practical, offer flexible workdays or hours to maximize “peak performance,” which can boost morale, improve mental and physical well-being and help employees with disabilities.
  • Incorporate project management products that generate visual task lists with images to provide examples of work at various stages — and image-based calendars to mark projected milestones.
  • Collaborate with employees to generate backup plans to help eliminate the stress of last-minute or unscheduled changes.
  • Give employees a heads-up whenever possible to raise awareness and preparation for significant schedule changes like training session days, office retreats, process improvements or standard operating procedure (SOP) updates.
  • Leverage technology like Dictate, Otter.ai, Grammarly, screen-readers, CART, etc.

Why bother?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that businesses with a varied workforce — including people with disabilities — see a 90% increase in employee retention and a 72% increase in employee productivity. Plus, companies hiring people with disabilities demonstrate their commitment to diversity. And according to Deloitte, when employees feel valued, welcomed and supported by their company, they’re 80% more likely to say they work for a high-performing organization.

Does it benefit companies to hire and support people with disabilities? We say, with great enthusiasm, “Yes!”

Embracing the “B” in DEIB

Diversity advocate Vernā Myers once said, “Diversity is being invited to the party.” Someone asks you to dance? That’s inclusion. You hit the dance floor without waiting for an invite? That’s equity. You’re comfortable asking anyone you want to dance with you? That’s belonging. 

You’re likely familiar with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, but Belonging might be new for you. To understand the import of adding “B” to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging requires first understanding how the DEI movement started.

Growing from the anti-discrimination legislation generated during the 1960s civil rights movement, DEI focused initially on tolerance — that is, accepting integration within communities, schools and workplaces. 

In the mid-1970s and well into the 1990s, its focus expanded to include multiculturalism and raising awareness of ethnic minorities’ accomplishments. While their efforts were primarily compliance-driven, companies nevertheless sought to increase diversity in their hiring practices, casting wider nets to find a broader talent pool.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2010s, companies saw the value of hiring a diverse workforce that reflected their customer base and the focus turned to inclusion. As Millennials (Gen Y) entered the workforce, researchers began to study the importance of inclusion — and identified emotional intelligence as foundational for creating and nurturing an inclusive work culture.

By 2015, nearly 90% of Fortune 500 companies had employee resource groups (ERGs), and as Gen Z entered the workforce, the focus of DEI began to shift again. Within the past few years, it’s gotten an update — a DEIB 2.0, if you will, to include “B” for belonging.

B-lieve in belonging

It’s always been a goal of workplaces to create a culture of diversity and inclusion — where everyone feels they belong. Adding the B offers another way for organizations to emphasize their commitment to DEIB values within the corporate culture. It enables companies to elevate themselves among the competition in a tight job market for attracting and retaining talent. And it tells potential employees that a company’s values and mission align with theirs.

Too many people from underrepresented backgrounds find themselves code-switching to fit in at work. Code-switching — changing how they dress, speak, behave and express themselves — to align with workplace cultural norms is exhausting. The B, however, serves to:

  • Foster a work culture that welcomes everyone.
  • Empower companies to create a psychologically safe workspace.
  • Encourage HR and leadership to allow all employees to benefit from internal professional development. 
  • Create an environment where everyone gets a seat at the table and feels comfortable challenging — not just agreeing with — ideas.

By embracing the “B,” companies reassure and invite employees to be themselves — always. Belonging means all employees feel comfortable in their own skin. And DEIB initiatives not only include everyone — they help increase innovation, performance and revenue.

Let’s recap

So how does belonging differ from inclusion? Glad you asked! But let’s recap all the definitions and how employers incorporate each into their company cultures today.

Diversity: A company’s employees represent a range of social identities, with diverse political beliefs, gender identities, religions, classes, sexual orientations, cultures and/or races.

Equity: The company champions the idea of fairly treating — and providing opportunities — for all of its employees.

Inclusion: A company’s leadership — often in collaboration with HR and a DEIB committee — develops and implements initiatives and systems designed to support and empower employees, regardless of their social identity or background, to feel:

  • Comfortable being themselves.
  • Involved, respected and valued.
  • Treated fairly and equitably.

Belonging: Taking inclusion a step further, companies embracing the “B” focus on nurturing a sense of security, ensuring employees feel their voices matter and that they’re accepted, included and supported for who they are and what they contribute.

Belonging matters as part of a DEIB strategy

Why is belonging such an essential part of DEIB strategy? Because when people experience that strong sense of belonging, they feel genuinely part of the team and company — and welcomed to participate. Satisfaction increases. Those who feel a part of something more willingly support each other — and the company’s goals. 

Promoting a culture of belonging where you work requires a commitment to ongoing process improvements company-wide from the top down (and bottom-up). Advocate for DEIB, helping every employee feel heard, seen and valued by:

  • Embracing inclusivity in meetings, collaborative opportunities and decision-making. Managers should involve their teams in planning and other important decisions affecting their departments when possible.
  • Encouraging people to become role models at all levels. Representing your unique, diverse workforce makes it easier for everyone to identify with their leaders.
  • Cultivating diversity management throughout the entire employee lifecycle, from D&I recruitment practices through promotions to training and professional development.
  • Creating diverse teams at all levels.
  • Championing transparency, connecting with employees regularly, using surveys and one-on-ones to gather feedback and encouraging people to voice concerns anonymously or to their management when issues arise.
  • Equipping managers with the tools they need to be appreciative, empowering, responsive and supportive.
  • Charting your progress with DEIB initiatives by tracking specific DEIB metrics you’ve identified and defined.

Creating a culture of belonging

Know the secret to create a culture of belonging? It’s simple — and not so secret. It’s building a sense of community for everyone and with everyone. 

Life’s already hard without wondering whether or not you fit in at work (and it’s even worse when you feel you’re not a good fit). When companies embrace DEIB, the culture shifts in a good way — in how teams work together to generate innovative ideas and creative solutions. You can’t limit someone’s personal and professional success when they feel celebrated, comfortable, seen and valued.