APU Business Original

Accommodating People with Disabilities in the Workplace

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Image courtesy of Sigmund on Unsplash

By Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in four Americans has a disability (61 million), and over six million people in the United States have a developmental disability. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed over 31 years ago, there is much that needs to be done to increase public awareness of workplace barriers and create an inclusive workforce for those with physical and developmental disabilities.

According to the White House’s proclamation on National Disability Employment Awareness Month, outdated policies such as the Fair Labor Standards Act “need to be abolished that allow employers to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage.” As a result of discriminatory workplace practices, job opportunities are often limited for people with physical and developmental disabilities.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Now is a good time for both employers and employees to consider how they can help workers with either developmental or physical disabilities.

What Is a Developmental or Physical Disability?

Developmental disabilities are specific disabilities that can develop from birth through age 22 that may limit some people’s ability to function in comparison to their non-disabled peers. Physical disabilities, by contrast, are limitations to physical functions such as movement, stamina and dexterity. They can occur at any time during a lifetime and impact daily activities.

In some cases, a developmental disability can lead to a physical disability. For instance, a developmental disability can result in chemical or modal imbalances.

In the workplace, it is wise to implement policies and guidelines to enhance accessibility. This type of work will be useful for employees who require reasonable accommodation for their physical or developmental disabilities.

Returning to an In-Person Workplace Will Make It Necessary to Have Discussions about Helping Those with Disabilities

While the COVID-19 pandemic led to remote work for a large portion of the population – and arguably enhanced work conditions for those with a physical or developmental disability – a return-to-work push means revisiting the inaccessibility conditions that have in large part been ignored over the past 20 months.

So what can employers and employees do to enhance accessibility in the workplace? The first step is to establish a clear understanding of what accessibility means.

Accessibility and Accommodations

There is a difference between accessibility and accommodations. Accessibility refers to products and services that are designed to be used by everyone, while accommodations involve products or services to be used by a few specific people.

Accommodations must be specifically requested and evaluated on a one-on-one basis. These accommodations can include utilizing standing desks, installing water fountains at various heights, and creating automatic doors for people using crutches or wheelchairs.

There are several myths about accommodations that need to be demystified, such as:

  • Accommodations are expensive and time-consuming to implement.
  • People with disabilities work less than they are required.
  • Workers with disabilities are given special treatment, which discriminates against those without a physical or developmental disability.

To the contrary, most accommodations for people with disabilities involve little to no cost. For example, visually impaired workers may need documents sent to them in a larger font, which is easy to do in a word processing program, and video platforms can use closed captions to relay information for hearing-impaired people in real time.

Similarly, physically impaired individuals may need to use parking spaces that are closer to entrances. These parking spaces are relatively easy to create with paint.

Eliminating Bias in Job Ads and Interviews

In the workplace, more work needs to be done to eliminate bias for people’s physical and developmental disabilities. This work involves various areas such as recruiting, hiring and onboarding.

For example, job descriptions should remove biased language. Words like “walk,” “lift,” and “stand” may act as barriers for individuals with physical disabilities and cause them to reconsider applying for certain jobs. When creating job ads, companies should consider if the job could be performed by someone with a physical disability and carefully word the job description in the ad.

For interviews, human resource departments and hiring managers should communicate in advance that a sign language interpreter is available for interviews. Organizations should also state their accommodations for individuals with a service animal.

Similarly, ADA training is needed to assist companies with their hiring and onboarding practices. Partnering with like-minded organizations can increase organizational awareness and remove barriers, so that talented individuals with physical and developmental disabilities can be hired and become assets to a company.

Hiring programs, such as Microsoft’s neurodiversity program, encourage job applicants to participate in an extended interview process involving workability, team projects and skill assessment. Microsoft also encourages a diversity of thought to help it develop products and services that are accessible for a diverse workforce and customer base.

An autism hiring program at Microsoft accommodates workers with autism to build a more diverse workforce with an array of skillsets. Previously, a condition such as autism would previously have excluded a candidate from being hired. Other companies – such as Dell, Google, Hewlett-Packard, and Ford – have similar programs for individuals with a physical or developmental disability.

Developing Accessible Work Environments

There needs to be a forward-looking stance when it comes to hiring people with disabilities. Disabilities should not be viewed as an inconvenience, but rather as an opportunity for organizations to develop a more inclusive work environment.

This inclusion means constructing business buildings with wider hallways, multi-level sinks and handicapped stalls located near the front of the bathroom. It can also involve including directional signs located at low heights, so that they could be easily read by a person with dwarfism or a person in a wheelchair. For those with visual impairments, the use of Braille should be standard on room signs, and large, easy-to-read print could be added to the same type of signs.

In addition, volume-controlled speakers should be available in both workspaces and meeting rooms to assist hearing-impaired individuals. Clear masks and face shields should be encouraged to help hearing-impaired individuals read lips.

Flexible Schedules and Remote Work Should Be Encouraged

People with physical and developmental disabilities represent one of the world’s largest untapped talent pools, and a conscious effort is needed to create a workplace that better accommodates all of their needs. The pandemic has shown that for most companies, employees don’t need to work side by side to maintain productivity.

Remote work has not only provided health benefits via social distancing and cost savings by a reduction in work-related expenses, but also a new way of looking at accessibility standards. As a result, companies should consider continuing flexible work schedules and remote work for the entire workforce and especially for those employees with physical and developmental disabilities.

Increasing awareness of physical and developmental disabilities starts with an internal conversation between executives, managers, and employees. Accessibility must include a proactive approach to enhancing both technical and non-technical tools to enable an entire workforce to clearly communicate and work in a productive manner. In the words of President Biden, America needs to encourage a workforce that “embraces the talents and skills that workers with disabilities bring to the national recovery and to promote the right to equal employment opportunity for all people.”

Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP, is an award-winning author, presenter, and professor with nearly 30 years of experience in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM). She is the creator of the Professor S.T.E.A.M. Children’s Book Series, which brings tomorrow’s concepts to future leaders today. A global speaker, STE(A)M advocate, and STE(A)M communicator, she holds a B.S. in Meteorology and an M.S. in Meteorology and Water Resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in Public Administration from Nova Southeastern University. She is a faculty member in Transportation and Logistics for the Wallace E. Boston School of Business and specializes in Artificial Intelligence (AI) in transportation, education, and technology.

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