Are you overlooking disability in your diversity and inclusion plan?
By Kelly Hermann, Saray Lopez and Tondra Richardson
Across the country, organizations are strengthening their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in response to recent civil unrest. When discussing how to best serve diverse populations, people tend to focus on race, religion, gender and LGBTQ+. While these are critical populations, disability is often overlooked in inclusion and diversity planning.
Unfortunately, people with disabilities can fall to the bottom of the priority list when creating equitable environments. They are often the silent minority who may not self-identify. But, as organizations committed to equity and inclusion, we have a priority to remove biases and address negative stigmas. For that reason, disabilities cannot be ignored.
This month gives us a reason to take notice. July 26, 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, federal civil rights legislation that protects people with disabling conditions from discrimination. This anniversary provides a moment to reflect on how to serve this often-underserved population.
This task doesn’t have to be difficult. You will find that when you make disability a priority, it is the perfect complement to the equity and inclusion work you’re already doing. But it takes effort and an organization-wide dedication to make it a success.
Embed it in your plans
As you are setting your organization’s intentions and goals for understanding your employees and customer demographic base, be sure you are recognizing disability as an attribute. If you are using focus groups or surveys to collect data to support your plan, include questions pertaining to disability so those who experience barriers see they have an avenue for their voices to be heard.
Once you are aware of any barriers or perceptions your employees and customers experience, you can work toward addressing those specific areas in your action plan. For instance, you may find that customers would benefit from a change to a font size or color on your business’s website, or more descriptive alternate text that accompanies images.
“You will find that when you make disability a priority, it is the perfect complement to the equity and inclusion work you’re already doing. But it takes effort and an organization-wide dedication to make it a success.”
You may find that employees with disabilities prefer person-first language as an element of culturally sensitive communication, meaning your words address the person first and foremost and disability as part of who they are and not the other way around.
For example, rather than saying “disabled employees” or “disabled customers” you would use the wording “people with disabilities” or “customers with disabilities.” Make sure your resources across the board reflect culturally sensitive language.
As you move forward with plans, encourage participation from those with disabilities in your efforts. If your organization is hosting conversation spaces or learning forums, include disability in your touch points so it is clear disability is a valued aspect of the organization’s diversity.
These dialogues provide growth opportunities for participants and can also bolster self-confidence and camaraderie among employees by helping participants recognize they are not alone, they can achieve their goals, they can overcome barriers and they are supported.
Overlooked disability intersections
Many people may not realize that an intersection exists between disability and diversity, equity and inclusion. For instance, in some cultures, disabilities have been historically stigmatized so diagnoses are never sought and accommodations are never made.
A person in that situation may be experiencing stereotypes and barriers from multiple angles. While they may not identify as having a disability due to a cultural bias or lack of information and resources, they may identify as a member of a diverse population and gravitate toward those supports. Letting employees know that disability is an understood and valued aspect of diversity may help them seek out the support they need, even if they’ve never done so before.
An example of an intersection we see at University of Phoenix relates to language or communication barriers and the way they can be accommodated. Assistive technology is available for voice-to-text and text-to-speech options to assist with barriers related to input and output of information. The same tools can be useful for students who are non-native English speakers. Providing these resources to all employees could make a pivotal difference for those experiencing barriers, regardless of disability status.
When employees buy in to viewing disability as an important aspect of diversity, it becomes a part of your culture. The overarching goal of supporting diversity, equity and inclusion is to be meaningful, specific and actionable. Recognizing that disability is an underserved and underrepresented population allows your organization to better understand and support your employees as well as your customers and provide an inclusive environment.
Kelly Hermann is vice president of accessibility, equity and inclusion. Saray Lopez and Tondra Richardson are directors of student diversity & inclusion at University of Phoenix.