Stepping up as Allies to People With Disabilities
October is Diversity Awareness month with many organizations hosting talks and learning activities for their employees. I am fortunate to be invited to deliver several talks this month including for Trane Technologies. October is also Disability Employment Awareness month in the US. In addition to facilitating a panel for WBC on Localizing a Global People with Disabilities Strategy, I have the honor of being on the board of Galt Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides, promotes, and expands employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
What do both these celebrations mean to mean to me? For me, this is a month when I can really step up and demonstrate my allyship for people with disabilities. Why? Because the benefit to organizations is clear – not to mention that it is simply the right thing to do and being an ally to people with disabilities enriches my life.
With high unemployment rates for people with disabilities, they are an untapped talent pool, especially in today’s tight labor market. Studies have found that people with disabilities have high retention and productivity rates and low levels of absenteeism. (1) People with disabilities hired by Marriott through their Pathway to Independence program in the US experienced a 6% attrition rate compared to a 52% rate for their overall workforce. (2) A lower attrition rate for people with disabilities translates into substantial financial savings. It costs organizations between 16% (for lower-skilled positions) and as much as 213% (for the highest-level executives) of a person’s annual salary to replace them. (3)
In addition to retention, people with disabilities bring different life experiences to the workplace- spawning innovation.
We know that consumers are choosing with their pocketbooks and disability-friendly organizations are more appealing to consumers, with 87% of customers in the US saying they would prefer to support businesses employing people with disabilities. (4) People with disabilities are an estimated 1.85-billion-strong worldwide - greater than the population of China. Their friends and family add another 3.4 billion potential consumers. Together, they control over US $13 trillion in annual disposable income globally. (5)
I like to say that we are temporarily able-bodied, which frequently changes as we age. UN statistics show that more than 46% of people over sixty have a disability compared to a rate of 15% for the population as a whole.
What does stepping up as allies to people with disabilities take? It takes Curiosity; it takes Courage, and it takes Commitment.
First, it takes curiosity to become a true ally, to make ourselves vulnerable in order to learn. And before we can be curious about others, it helps to be curious about ourselves. We need to assess our own readiness, our own strengths, and weaknesses. I believe it was Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet who asked: Do you pay regular visits to yourself?
Below is a continuum of common beliefs and mindsets impacting approaches to DEI. Use these to assess yourself:
As allies, we can fall along a spectrum of readiness, and that can constantly be changing. We may find that we are far along in our journeys in some dimensions and not in others. For example, someone might be very aware of racial injustice, but might have a lot to learn on LGBTQ issues. Or someone might be tuned into women’s issues in the workplace but not at all to inclusion of people with disabilities. We might think we are very far along the spectrum, but our self-assessment might not be accurate.
Curiosity: Closed vs Receptive Mindset
So let me share an example of a closed vs receptive mindset. In China, people with disabilities are far more impoverished than the general population. The ILO estimated that in 2005 almost 14 million people with disabilities living in rural China were in poverty, and the per capita income of households with people with disabilities was “less than half the average of other households.” To combat this, China put in place a number of laws to protect people with disabilities as well as hiring quotas—at least 1.5% of public and private workforces must be people with disabilities. (6) This has compelled organizations to ramp up their staffing efforts and, at times, leaves recruiters competing for talent.
It is not uncommon in China for people with disabilities to live with their parents and siblings with limited interactions outside the family. Whether families are often protective or are ashamed of family members with disabilities, the outcome is that the family member with a disability does not often work outside the home. Recruiters in China often make home visits to convince parents that their organization can offer an inclusive, safe environment for their child.
Such an intervention would be unheard of in the United States and many places in Europe. Viewed through a monocultural closed mindset visiting parents would be viewed as violating privacy, undermining and patronizing to the candidate—even humiliating. But in a Chinese context, this approach was enormously appreciated. When viewed through a receptive mindset, the Chinese context comes into focus and you can appreciate the benefits of this approach. For many new employees with disabilities, this was the first time they had left their parents to work, so recruiters set up a close connection with the family. HR staff occasionally visit the family with gifts—especially during festival times. The resulting connection and trust allows all parties to be aware of any difficulties that might arise, and to manage them holistically.
One of the earliest lessons I learned in my self-discovery journey doing DEI transformation work is that it is not useful to enter inclusion work with a closed mindset – or a fixed idea of what the problem is and what will work. A receptive mindset, open to listening and collaboration with people with disabilities, takes humility – and curiosity –a key ingredient to allyship.
Courage: Cultivating Empathy
True allies need to constantly be learning. We need to nurture our humility and seek out opportunities to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones. Learning happens at the edge of our comfort zones, so to move from performative allyship to genuine allyship, we each need to have the courage to enter conversations that might not be comfortable for us or for others in the organization.
When Vincent Meehan and his wife went to visit their daughter Jennifer’s first grade classroom one day, they found Jennifer, who has down syndrome, sobbing in the back of the class, saying two words over and over. They looked at her classmates who were making green paper chains and realized that Jennifer was saying “Green chain. Green chain.” She wanted a chance to make a chain, but she had been excluded from the activity—an activity she was fully capable of doing.
Now, at age 33, Jennifer works for Sodexo Canada, as does her father. Vincent had the courage to make himself vulnerable and to share his lived experiences of a daughter with down syndrome in the workplace. As a result of his courage Vincent served as Chair for Sodexo Canada’s ADEPT employee network, which stands for All Disabled Employees Possess Talent. ADEPT prioritized pushing for the recruitment of more employees with disabilities. As part of that effort, ADEPT compiled a resource list of ninety-five organizations throughout Canada that specialize in job readiness and recruitment of people with disabilities. Since ADEPT began this work in 2015, over 600 people with disabilities have been hired in Canada, with approximately 100 new people hired each year.
Vincent suggested displaying a green paper chain in the office. Now for every new individual with a disability that joins Sodexo Canada, ADEPT adds a link to Jennifer’s Green Chain. Every single one of us has a story and when we have the courage to make ourselves vulnerable and share our stories, we begin to create an organizational culture where there is room to learn and grow and change.
Commitment: Take Action
But it is not enough to simply be curious about yourself and others.
It is not enough to be courageous and to listen to others’ stories and share your own.
None of that leads to genuine allyship without commitment. We need to take action to ensure that we embed a disabilities lens into our systems and processes, inside and out as the fourth principle in my book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity an Inclusion states: Go Deep, Wide and Inside-Out.
Charter Communications, Inc. is a leading broadband connectivity company and cable operator in the US. To address the customer experience, Charter recognized the importance of embedding accessibility at each touch point of the product lifecycle, especially for their aging customers and those with disabilities.
Imagine a technician going into a visually impaired customer’s home and leaving their bag of tools on the floor where the customer might trip over them. Or a call center agent asking a blind customer to click on something they cannot see. For a product to be truly accessible for people with disabilities, both the product and all the customer touchpoints have to ensure accessibility, which means that in some cases, processes have to be reimagined. How products are designed, delivered, and supported for customers with disabilities required a new mindset and holistic training for both the Charter Communications, Inc. team members and the customers themselves.
Born Accessible is Charter Communication’s initiative to embed accessibility at the onset of the product development process rather than test and remediate later. A twenty-member team, many of whom have disabilities, work side-by-side with developers, user experience designers, testers, and product owners to ensure products launch fully accessible. Peter Brown, Group Vice President, Digital Platforms Agency, spoke to me with passion about how the team helps designers understand how nuances like typography and color contrast can impact disparate disabilities. (7)
Initially, Peter focused on the accessible product design but when he truly listened as an ally, he realized that the success of the products was dependent on ensuring that the entire customer journey was attuned to accessibility.
As an ally, Peter and his team went inside-out to embed accessibility in their products and services for a positive experience for their customers with disabilities. That’s commitment!
Curiosity, Courage and Commitment in Action: Demonstrate your allyship for People with Disabilities
Do an accessibility audit of all your processes.
Ensure that your physical office and other business spaces are fully accessible.
Provide reasonable accommodations and include a statement about the accommodations in all the relevant communications internally and externally.
Ensure that your website, digital platforms, virtual and in-person meetings and events, webinars, business cards, marketing pieces, reports etc. are accessible for persons with disabilities and compatible with the assistive technologies they use, like screen readers.
Have a clear process for seeking accommodations in the workplace, and clearly articulate that process on your website and in all relevant materials.
Culture of Inclusion
Collect voluntary, anonymous disability self id data from your employees.
Make it safe for employees to share their disability by showcasing role models.
Lead a disability ERG.
Share your stories of lived experiences as an Individual with Disabilities or a caregiver or an ally for people with disabilities.
Make sure you include invisible disabilities and mental health challenges in your discourse.
Partner with external organizations like Galt Foundation, National Organization for Disabilities, DisabilityIn to source and hire people with disabilities.
Audit all your processes to ensure there is no unconscious bias against people with disabilities in the talent lifecycle.
Provide coaching and training to your managers to ensure that they are equipped to manage people with disabilities and ensure their success.
Provide education and coaching to all employees, managers and recruiters to eliminate unconscious bias as it relates to people with disabilities so they can be allies.
Integrate disability into all your diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, and set goals for representation of people with disabilities.
Make sure you hold your teams accountable for fostering an inclusive and equitable culture for people with disabilities and are developing and advancing them in the workplace.
Every single one of us has influence, often more than we realize. If each person reading this stepped up with Curiosity and the desire to learn; with Courage and the willingness to be changed; and with Commitment and the readiness to take action – think – just think for a moment about the reverberations that would have. Think of the numbers of people with disabilities who could find employment. Think of the inclusive culture we could foster where people with disabilities could advance and thrive in a culture where they felt they belonged. Think of the benefit to the organization and to people with disabilities!
Did you know? You can sign up to receive posts like this straight into your inbox. Sign up here.
(1) Nancy Geenen, “Employing Individuals with Disabilities May Solve Your Talent Crisis,” Entrepreneur, November 2, 2018, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/321984; Joseph Graffam, Kaye Smith, Alison Shinkfield, and Udo Polzin, “Employer Benefits and Costs of Employing a Person with a Disability,” Deakin University, Journal of Vocational Rebilitation 17, 4 (2002): 251-263, https://dro.deakin.edu.au/view/DU:30001618
(2) Hannah Weiss, “How Hiring People with Disabilities Can Help Your Bottom Line,” Workology, April 14, 2015, https://workology.com/how-hiring-people-with-disabilities-can-increase-your-bottom-line/
(3) Heather Boucher and Sarah Jane Glynn, “There Are Significant Business Costs to Replacing Employees,” Center for American Progress (November 16, 2012), 2, https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/CostofTurnover.pdf
(4) Featured Partner of DiversityInc, “Myth-Busting: Hiring Workers with Disabilities,” DiversityInc, February 24, 2010, https://www.diversityinc.com/myth-busting-hiring-workers-with-disabilities/
(5) Return on Disability, “Return on Disability Research.”
(6) International Labour Organization, “Inclusion of People with Disabilities in China,” International Labour Organization, January 2013, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_emp/---ifp_skills/documents/publication/wcms_112380.pdf
(7) Peter Brown, Group Vice President, Digital Platforms Agency, Charter Communications, Inc., interview with the author, December 16, 2020.