One of the great things about National Disability Employment Awareness Month (#NDEAM) is the interesting events being organized to discuss this topic and work on solutions.
This month I attended the second annual Disability Inclusion Forum hosted by Business for Impact, a program of Georgetown University’s School of Business with the mission of helping their students and businesses solve societal problems. The one-day meeting was focused on learning best practices for closing the disability employment gap from a variety of businesses and other organizations working on this issue. Representatives from Northrup Grumman, Starbucks, Accenture, Ernst & Young, DuPont, Porter Novelli, the Department of Labor, and others shared lessons, approaches, and great ideas on a variety of approaches for hiring and retaining workers with disabilities.
Caroline Casey, an award-winning social entrepreneur and inclusivity activist, started the day with a keynote about the importance of inclusion for all people. She launched the Valuable 500 to expand disability inclusion by recruiting companies that have committed to making it a part of their business leadership agenda. The organization also helps businesses learn how to take steps for disability inclusion.
Creating Disability-Inclusive Workplaces
A panel featuring representatives from Ernst & Young, DuPont, and PwC discussed creating an inclusive environment inside and outside of their companies for people with disabilities. They explained that accessible technology is not enough, but that biases must be addressed and a place where people are comfortable sharing their disabilities without fear of stigma and discrimination.
Representatives from the first U.S.-based sign-language Starbucks store (which is located in Washington, DC) spoke about the success of opening the store and employing Deaf people. They noted the high unemployment rate for this group and that employees have moved to other stores because of their contributions to the company. When planning the store, Starbucks partnered with local organizations and the space even features works from Deaf artists.
Northrup Grumman has been recognized as a leading disability inclusion company. They have programs to recruit and support employees with disabilities, particularly military veterans. Additionally, an employee resource group helps to understand employee needs and supports the recruitment of new employees with disabilities. The company noticed a discomfort with employees disclosing their disabilities, so they launched a self-identification program to help employees feel more comfortable and explained that the information would be confidential while helping the company to create appropriate supports for the workforce. Since launching, the rates of disclosure have dramatically increased, as well as help with creating accommodations for their employees with disabilities.
The Importance of Partners in Disability Inclusion
Many of the speakers noted that the companies would not be able to pursue disability inclusion on their own. Businesses need to engage partners (consultants, nonprofits, and others) to grow their knowledge and find the right approaches for their needs and workforce. Additionally, the most successful efforts had collaborative partnerships where the company and partner worked hand-in-hand.
It was important for the businesses to begin with leadership committed to disability inclusion. In addition to this commitment, they need to train staff and provide ongoing education. The companies also need to actively engage managers and supervisors to share feedback and make adjustments as needed.
When finding a partner, it was important to have someone who listens and understands the needs of the business. Start by developing a framework for the partnership about what needs to be done and the expectations, including measuring effectiveness. Activities can include helping to build an inclusive culture, improving the recruitment pipeline, creating a clear process for requesting and implementing reasonable accommodations, and more.
Several of these companies partner with Disability:IN, which has helped businesses assess their environment, create policies, and implement programs to recruit and retain employees with disabilities. Disability inclusion is a process that can take time and involves learning and changing as needed.
Resources from the Department of Labor
Jennifer Sheehy from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy highlighted several technical assistance resources available for employers:
- The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) helps employers recruit, hire, retain and advance people with disabilities. In addition to hosting webinars and other events, EARN also maintains a website, AskEARN.org, which provides information on: recruiting and hiring; retention and advancement; laws and regulations; creating an accessible and welcoming workplace; and federal contractor requirements. The website also offers a variety of resources to assist state and federal government agencies in making their workforces more inclusive
- The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is a source of free, expert and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues.
- The Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT) promotes the employment, retention, and career advancement of people with disabilities through the development, adoption, and promotion of accessible technology.
Bringing all of it home was the story shared by an employee of public relations firm Porter Novelli. As a young woman with a sudden spinal cord injury, she spoke about the inclusive environment of the company where she excels and has the supports she needs to do great work. She explained that it didn’t take much to give her the accommodations she needs (such as an adjusted desk, accessible doors, telework, and flexible hours), yet it allows her to work and thrive.
While it may take some reflection and leadership for businesses to pursue disability inclusion, the impact can be powerful for both the company and its employees. Businesses large and small can take steps and find resources that ignite and sustain their disability inclusion journey.