THE BLOG

Deepening Our Inclusion of People With Disabilities

03/10/2015 11:59 am ET | Updated May 10, 2015

Below, Bonnie interviews Deb Dagit, one of the nation's leading experts on disability as well as diversity issues in the workplace. During her eleven years as Chief Diversity Officer of Merck, DiversityInc, Working Mother, Human Rights Campaign, Department of Defense, and many others recognized the company. Prior to joining Merck, Deb led diversity programs at Silicon Graphics, Inc. and Sun Microsystems. Earlier in her career she played a key role in lobbying for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Deb now offers the products and services she wishes were available to her when she was a corporate diversity executive.

Bonnie: Nowadays, most major corporations have internal "Business Resource Groups" or BRGs to represent diverse communities of employees such as women, veterans, or Hispanic employees. What is special about a BRG for people with disabilities?

Deb Dagit: Disability is represented in all other dimensions of human difference including race, faith, and sexual orientation. Almost everyone will experience a temporary disability at some point in their lives and likely end up with one or more life-long disabilities as they grow older. Also, given that 20% of the U.S. population has a disability, virtually everyone has a friend or family member who qualifies, even if they don't have a disability themselves.

Oddly enough, the BRG for people with disabilities is often the last one to form at a company since there is so much sensitivity around disclosure. While new legislation encourages people to self-identify, the 71% of people who experience a non-apparent disability are reluctant to check the box or even ask for a needed accommodation due to stigma and bias. Some say that people are more 'in the closet' about non-visible disabilities than they are about sexual orientation since they fear their stamina might be questioned or career prospects jeopardized.

Most successful BRG's for people with disabilities also include "allies" (parents, friends, and supporters) which widens the scope of those dealing with disability and allows participants to come without disclosing why.

Bonnie: I was fascinated when you raised the subject that our fears, experiences, and overall relationships with disability differ across ethnic groups, cultures, etc. It's so obvious when you say it, but BRGs seldom--if ever--talk about that. How did you kick start a dialog between the BRGs about disability at the Diversity Best Practices conference?

Deb Dagit: At a Diversity Best Practices conference, we hosted a fishbowl with representatives of six BRG's representing African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, LGBT, Interfaith and Veterans to discuss these issues with conference attendees sitting outside this circle of 6 listening and interacting with the BRG leaders.

Bonnie: What are some of the unique disability issues that arise across BRGs that you explored?

Deb Dagit: Let me offer four examples of how cultures and disability intersect:

- In Communities of Color, including African-American, Native, Hispanic, and Asian communities, the incidence of disability is often higher due to health care disparities and exposure to more environmental risks. While the incidence of disability may be higher in communities of color, the support systems needed are often lacking. That leads to women of color frequently having an expanded role in caring for extended family members with a disability.

- The Military defines disability differently than the Americans with Disabilities Act. That discrepancy tends to confuse the issue and discourage veterans from identifying themselves as having a disability or seeking any accommodations in the workplace. Consider also the military's history of discharging people with disabilities rather than finding them alternative types of work. Coming to work with an openly disclosed disability represents a departure from traditional military culture, and many veterans worry that if they let their employer know they are living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) they will be viewed as having anger management issues and be asked inappropriate questions about their combat experiences.

- Many LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) couples have chosen to adopt children with disabilities but still struggle to find medical and other support systems that are respectful of their family. Even worse, some people in the LGBT community struggle with the entire concept of disability because homosexuality was considered a 'psychiatric disorder' until 1986.

- For the companies with one or more Faith BRGs, the dialog may encompass the ways that some traditions regard disability as a stigma. Engaging with respected spiritual leaders in the communities where the BRG members worship can be a way to address these challenges.

...and that's just a few examples! You can imagine this is a very rich topic.

Bonnie: Those are problematic, even uncomfortable, discussions to open up especially in a work setting. Do you have to help educate the BRG leaders about disability issues? Do you ask them to use disability-aware language?

Deb Dagit: When we prepare BRG leaders, it typically only takes a couple hours of dialogue to engage them in a candid conversation and tap into their natural desire to be allies for their BRG community members who are living with a disability.

It is important to start with personal experiences around disability with a friend or family member, and what it was like to be an ally in this regard. People are then more ready to explore the critical role their BRG can play in helping their company enhance employee engagement and inclusion for their members with disabilities. BRG's are necessary partners in fostering an environment where colleagues of all backgrounds can trust that being "out" as a person with a disability, and asking for what they need to contribute to their full potential is not just safe to do, but welcome and career enhancing.

Bonnie: What can BRG's do to make employees with a disability feel more welcome and included?

Deb Dagit: Here are 8 things any BRG can take action on right away -

1. Whenever a BRG is holding an event--a speaker, a networking event, or a community activity--they could offer to provide accommodations related to hearing, mobility, or vision needs. That means BRG leaders have to educate themselves on how accommodations are provided at their company. Most people just don't think of it.

2. Find the members of your BRG who really care about disability and have a strong personal connection. Ask them to champion disability inclusion and inform your thinking as to ways to help members and allies who have disabilities feel welcome.

3. Find opportunities to surface and refute disability myths related to your BRG, educate members about the facts, and suggest positive proactive approaches that are culturally appropriate.

4. Identify role models for disability in your community. Who are successful Asians, Latinos, LGBT, African-Americans, women, or veterans with disabilities? Might they be a good speaker or panelist at a future event?

5. Tie to the business: explain the size of the disability market and why it's important to earn their business. For more information see my previous blog entry.

6. Reinforce that enhanced openness and self-disclosure helps to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment in which all employees can perform at their best. Studies show that disability inclusive environments experience significantly higher engagement with ALL employees, and customers are much more likely to give their business to a company that has a reputation of employing and respecting individuals with disabilities.

7. Provide training on disability etiquette. Here is a link to a free guide from the United Spinal Association: http://www.unitedspinal.org/pdf/DisabilityEtiquette.pdf

8. Encourage your BRG members to be allies for the disability BRG at your company.

Bonnie: In short, Disability awareness and responsiveness is important to any organization, from large multi-national corporations to small local companies. If you'd like us to talk with your organization about these topics, feel free to get in touch at either www.debdagitdiversity.com or www.bonniestjohn.com.