How can you design a disability-inclusive workplace?

Ruby Dark

Dec 3, 2021

December 3rd marks International Day of Disabled Persons. This day gives us an opportunity to reflect on what we can do better to support the rights and wellbeing of people living with disabilities. At Fair HQ, we believe in equal opportunity for all. That means that every individual should be able to reach success at work. Today, we’re talking about how you can welcome people with disabilities in the workplace and ensure that everyone can reach their fullest potential.

International Day of Disabled Persons prompts us all to reflect on how we can continue to support the rights of people with disabilities and how we can build a more accessible society. At Fair HQ, we’ve been thinking about how to show up for our friends and coworkers who live with a disability by creating inclusive workplaces, accessible to all.

There are so many talented people with disabilities who don’t get a chance to showcase their skills because of harmful stereotypes or unnecessary barriers. As employers, it’s our responsibility to create accessible opportunities and stamp out disability discrimination in the workplace.

The impact of stereotypes

Employers often discount disabled people’s talents because of stereotypes. Employers may believe that people with disabilities are worse at performing on the job, no matter the role and responsibilities. They assume disabled people slow down the team, are expensive to hire and require inconvenient changes to the way things are done.

These stereotypes are a prime reason why disabled people in the UK are so severely underemployed. Their rate of employment is 28.8% lower than that of people without a disability.

Studies have revealed that disabled people are typically viewed as having high warmth and low competence — in other words, they’re likeable, but not hireable.

4 red pawns close together and 1 brown pawn stood apart, representing exclusion.

The fact is, while a disability may make it difficult to perform some job-related tasks, it doesn’t discount someone’s entire range of skills. Jobs can be redesigned and optimised to suit an individual’s ability so that their strengths can shine.

By fostering an inclusive environment and ending implicit discrimination, you can welcome disabled people and the multitude of talents they possess to your company.

What is disability discrimination?

Disability discrimination occurs whenever an individual is treated differently because of their disability. Discrimination isn’t always obvious and intentional. As employers, we may put individuals with a disability at a disadvantage without even realising it.

For example, do you offer candidates the choice to choose from multiple communication methods, including email, screen-reading and braille signage? Do you allow employees to commute outside of rush hour? Do you offer flexible work as a default?

These factors, and many more, impact accessibility and disability-inclusion in the workplace.

That’s not to say disability discrimination is always covert though. Disabled workers report facing outright ill-treatment from colleagues or prospective employers. This includes being stared at, mocked or patronised.

The workplace can be a hostile place for people with disabilities. 30% of disabled workers reported experiencing unfair treatment at work during the pandemic.

And it’s not just unprecedented times that disproportionately impact people with disabilities. Disabled employees report lower work-related wellbeing than their peers on measures such as job satisfaction and fair treatment.

Invisible disability

What’s more, employers may not even be aware of their employees’ needs. Many people live with invisible disabilities that aren’t obvious unless you ask, but still impact the way they navigate the world of work.

Think of someone who lives with arthritis, who can’t sit behind a desk for 8 hours non-stop. They might feel discomfort at work, but prefer to keep it to themselves.

So as employers, how can you make sure everyone is able to meaningfully contribute and reach success in your company?

We need to embed accessibility across all aspects of work-life. What can you do as a leader to eradicate disability discrimination in your workplace?

How to understand disability in your workplace

To welcome diverse talent to your company, you need to create accessible opportunities for people with disabilities. That means making adjustments and accommodations so that everyone can fulfil their full potential.

Creating a disability-inclusive culture might involve changing your way of thinking to value difference instead of sameness. When hiring candidates, focus on what people can do, not what they can’t do. Ask yourself; what new perspectives and skills could disabled people bring to the team?

You’ll also have to pay more attention to the barriers preventing people from reaching their full potential. What makes life difficult for your disabled employees? What can you do to make it easier? How can you adjust the status quo to open up opportunities for disabled employees?

People tend to think of “disability” as a catch-all term describing people with similar difficulties. People’s needs actually vary hugely. To be an inclusive employer, you need to consider and cater for a vast array of requirements, including those of people with physical impairments, neurodivergence, mental health conditions and learning disabilities.

When people feel comfortable and secure enough to disclose their disability status, it’s easier to make sure they get the support they need early so that they can do their job best.

Did you know? A recently conducted survey revealed that 1 in 8 disabled workers did not disclose their disability status to their employer. 38% of those people did not reveal their disability status because they were worried that their employer would think that they could not do their job.

What can you do to create a disability-inclusive workplace?

There are plenty of ways to level the playing field and create opportunities for disabled employees to flourish in your workplace. You don’t need to be a large company with lots of resources. Here are some informal practices you can introduce that benefit all your employees, especially those with disabilities.

How to design disability-inclusive jobs

One key way to support your disabled colleagues is to offer flexibility over job design.

As mentioned above, a disability may make it difficult to perform some job responsibilities.

For example, someone’s disability may make it difficult to speak in meetings or presentations, but they have no problem at all writing excellent code that meets specifications. Perhaps someone’s visual impairment makes it difficult to meet with customers, but with a text-to-speech device they have no problem producing and reviewing written work.

Job carving is when core responsibilities are customised to suit a person’s specific needs or abilities. Like the situation described above, disabled people may be perfectly adept in 90% of the job tasks, but unable to perform certain responsibilities. In these cases, jobs can be carved to share responsibilities across a team and create viable work opportunities for disabled individuals.

How to promote autonomy

Job autonomy affords disabled workers some control over how they complete their tasks. This empowers individuals to develop solutions that best accommodate their disability.

For example, instead of writing up a lengthy customer report, someone could instead record audio explaining the results or work with a coworker to develop a presentation.

The key to success here is working with employees to determine the best course of action that fulfils their needs while simultaneously suiting the rest of the team. Getting it right requires a teamwork culture built on collaboration and support. Talk to your team to get their ideas on how to optimise each other’s strengths.

A woman using a laptop sat next to another woman with Down syndrome, both working together.

Flexible working

Another key way to set disabled employees up for success is by offering flexible work. And this a popular initiative for all employees — 87% of people in the UK would like to work flexibly.

For people living with disabilities, flexible work allows for better control over work-life balance and empowers employees to align their personal health needs with their work.

94 percent of disabled workers who had worked from home during the pandemic wanted to continue doing so in some form. Better control over their working hours and reduced fatigue and tiredness were some of the benefits of flexible work they reported.

Typical 9 to 5 office hours aren’t always ideal for people living with disabilities and fluctuating energy levels. Flexible work gives employees control over their working hours, allowing them to take breaks when needed and choose their own start and finish times. Employees can take time off at short notice and distribute working hours across the week.

Offer flexibility as the default for all employees, and work with individuals on an ad-hoc basis to work out reduced or part-time hours if necessary.

How to make reasonable adjustments

What are reasonable adjustments?

‘Reasonable adjustment’ is a broad term that encompasses any change to the typical set-up to make employees’ lives easier. We’ve already mentioned some examples of reasonable adjustments, such as job carving and reduced hours, that can support disabled employees.

It’s important to note that reasonable adjustments should be accessible to every employee, regardless of disability status. Everyone should get access to what they need to do their work more successfully.

Reasonable adjustments and accommodations can boost employee morale, satisfaction and perceptions of support. One study involving over 3000 US employers revealed that 68% of employers believe that accommodations improve employee productivity.

How to organise reasonable adjustments

Employees should be involved at every stage of the adjustment process — after all, they know what they need best.

Be aware of ‘unwanted paternalism‘. Managers may mistakenly assume that their disabled team members aren’t up to the task or need certain responsibilities revoked. This can end up harming their chance of internal progression.

Never assume what someone needs without asking them. Managers should ask all employees if they need reasonable adjustments, ideally at the onboarding stage so that they get support as soon as possible.

Adjustments should be tailored to suit the individual but include a list of possibilities in a formal document so that people understand your company’s approach to reasonable adjustments.

In a one-on-one meeting with your employees, discuss the working environment (social and physical) to find out what changes need to be made to improve accessibility.

Here are some examples of possible reasonable adjustments:

  • Providing ergonomic equipment and adjustments (such as a keyboard or desk chair)

  • Changes to the built environment (including ramps, automatic doors, braille signage…)

  • Longer or more flexible deadlines

  • Providing a scribe or signer during important in-person meetings

  • Flexible, part time or reduced working hours

  • Awarding assistive technology to help the employee perform job-related tasks (such as a screen reader or text-to-speech device)

  • Increasing work from home hours

  • A formally appointed mentor or a teammate with a similar job who can offer support

It’s not easy to get right, and you may need to trial and error some solutions before you find one that works best. The process should be ongoing — regularly review accommodations and revise whenever necessary.

Until every person has the opportunity to succeed at any workplace, regardless of their disability status, equal opportunity will elude us. So on International Day of Disabled Persons, what changes can you make to ensure all employees can thrive in your company?

Backing it up

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Bonaccio, S., Connelly, C. E., Gellatly, I. R., Jetha, A., & Ginis, K. A. M. (2019). The participation of people with disabilities in the workplace across the employment cycle: Employer concerns and research evidence. Journal of Business and Psychology35(2), 135-158.

Cuddy AJ, Fiske ST, Glick P. 2007. The BIAS map: behaviors from intergroup affect and stereotypes. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 92(4):631–48

Hebl, M., Cheng, S. K., & Ng, L. C. (2020). Modern discrimination in organizations. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior7, 257-282.

Hoque, K., Wass, V., Bacon, N., & Jones, M. (2018). Are high‐performance work practices (HPWPs) enabling or disabling? Exploring the relationship between selected HPWPs and work‐related disability disadvantage. Human Resource Management57(2), 499-513.

Moody, L. et al. (2017) ‘An exploratory study of barriers to inclusion in the European workplace’ Disability and Rehabilitation, 39:20

Padkapayeva, K. et al. (2017) ‘Workplace accommodations for persons with physical disabilities: evidence synthesis of the peer-reviewed literature’, Disability and Rehabilitation, 39:21

TUC (2021) Disabled Workers’ access to flexible working as a reasonable adjustment A TUC Report

Foster, D. & Hirst, N. (2020) Legally Disabled? The career experiences of disabled people working in the legal profession. Cardiff University.