THE BLOG
12/09/2014 05:36 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Leading the Way: Workplace Inclusiveness for People of All Abilities

As we mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities last week, we're at an historic crossroads when it comes to employment and inclusiveness for people of differing abilities. We believe we've reached the "tipping point," on raising awareness around these critical workplace issues.

We're approaching the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2015. In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor's new section 503 regulations, which went into effect on March 2014, introduced a hiring goal for federal contractors and subcontractors that seven percent of each job group in their workforce be qualified individuals with disabilities. Also, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), signed into law in July 2014, enables millions of Americans to receive training and skills to find and keep a job, including individuals with disabilities.

Despite this progress, more remains to be done. In 2013, only 17.6% of persons with a disability were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and their jobless rate was little changed from 2012 to 2013, while the rate for those without a disability declined.

So, now onto the essential question: How do we foster a culture of workplace diversity and inclusion for people with diverse abilities? This question and more was discussed at the inaugural EY Diverse Abilities Summit, which featured speakers from companies focused on inclusiveness of people with diverse abilities including IBM, Merck, and Cisco. Some strategies and observations include:

Business case for diversity - People with disabilities represent a huge market. As with any customer segment, the best way to tap into this market is to ensure it is represented in our workforce by hiring employees with disabilities and embedding inclusion in policies and practices. Americans over the age of 55 account for roughly 30 million workers, while those over 65 account for an additional 7 million. These workers represent a considerable population of Americans that may age into disabilities. At the same time, the US workforce will be increasingly comprised of the post-ADA generation - young people accustomed to interacting with peers with disabilities who have been mainstreamed in the education system and enter adulthood expecting to work. Higher education institutions are doing a better job of coordinating their disability and career services so that students are prepared to find jobs after they graduate. In addition, nearly 30% of veterans are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with visible or non-visible disabilities. This is the new reality about disability employment -- what started as a policy-driven issue has become a market-driven imperative.

Create the right culture -The Section 503 seven percent goal has led many employers to ask about fostering a culture of inclusion for people with differing abilities. There are several things companies should seek to achieve:
  • Create an environment where people with a disability feel safe to self-identify, and provide accessibility and accommodations to help them succeed. We're all accommodated in one way or another. For instance, workplace flexibility is now standard for many top companies, but years ago it was considered an accommodation.
  • Inclusion of people with differing abilities needs to be baked in across the enterprise, rather than layered on to a company's culture.
  • Educate all members of the organization about how diverse teams help strengthen culture, drive innovation, and the business.
  • Lastly, showcase your commitment via leadership messages, success stories, and photos/videos of real people within the organization.

Employee Resource Groups - Employee resource groups, or ERGs, are a best practice that maps back to the comfort and safety and success of your people. ERGs help make a real impact on workplace culture through organized feedback from current employees while reinforcing the company's commitment to diversity. They create an opportunity for people who share commonalities to support one another and advise the organization on how to better support the needs of a particular community. Moreover, different ERGs within an organization can help each other by sharing best practices and information. For example, LGBT ERGs have insights to offer disability ERGs, since they face similar identification and disclosure challenges. In addition, some companies have created ERGs for employees with children with special needs.

Strategies for Encouraging Self-Identification - Some companies are conducting internal campaigns to encourage disclosure -- including of people with non-visible disabilities -- through communications, the onboarding process and ongoing training. Additionally, it helps to have leaders talk about their connections to disability, whether through their own personal experiences or those of their family members or friends. At the Summit, for instance, a top leader discussed the impact on his father's life due to disability and another executive noted adjustments made to her work style for a new employee who is hard of hearing. Branding is not just external -- it's internal, too. It's what employees and potential employees find when they enter the workplace, whether literally or virtually. Do they see employees with disabilities at all levels of the organization? Do they find an accessible technology infrastructure? During onboarding, are they proactively informed of the process for requesting reasonable accommodations? These powerful images foster a culture where people can bring their whole selves to work.

Etiquette & Social Situations - Often times, success lies in the basics of etiquette and common sense. The norms for being courteous and respectful to people with disabilities are generally the same for everyone. Like all people, people with disabilities want to be included - this applies to work and play. For example, consider the needs of people with different physical abilities when planning meeting locations as well as social events.

It is important to remember that people with disabilities are just that, people. Disability is a part of us, but it's not all of us. People with disabilities have families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes too.

These are just some steps companies can take to demonstrate that they choose to be inclusive. Because building an environment where everybody can succeed is not just a normal part of doing business, it provides a competitive advantage.

Kathy Martinez is the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor and Karyn Twaronite is EY Global Diversity & Inclusiveness Officer