How welcoming is your company to disabled employees and customers? Are there things you could be doing to improve in this area?
It was a legendary moment in my husband’s family that happened a few years before we met. His daughter (now my stepdaughter), born without hands and feet, wanted to open a bank account at the gleaming new bank in her college town. The bank was built completely on one level, with spaces wide enough for her wheelchair to navigate easily. All except the doorway, which had a two-inch step up from the sidewalk.
After fuming about it for a day or two, she decided to take action. She drove her wheelchair to the doorway and stopped there, effectively blocking it off. Then she hopped down, walked the few steps in on the stumps of her legs and announced that she wanted to open an account. Bank employees came running from all directions. A ramp was installed within the week.
It’s nice to suppose that the bank wanted to do the right thing, and also serve a new customer. But there was another reason for its rapid response: The Americans with Disabilities Act, which became law on July 26, 1990. Under that new legislation, the bank’s wheelchair-unfriendly entry was a lawsuit waiting to happen. The bank’s executives likely recognized that threat and took immediate action to deal with it.
Twenty-five years later we’ve come a long way toward making the world a more welcoming place for the disabled, but most companies could still do a better job both of creating a workspace that everyone can use, and also of making their disabled employees and customers feel at home. It’s not just a matter of making sure your rest rooms have stalls large enough to accommodate wheelchairs and handrails–although that’s important to do. How you and your other employees interact with disabled colleagues day-to-day is at least as important as creating an accessible workplace.
If you want a more comfortable workplace for everyone, whatever their physical limitations, here are some steps to take:
1. Begin by making sure your workplace is fully accessible.
This isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s a legal requirement and failing to make your workplace accessible can come back to bite you if a disabled person who is otherwise qualified is unable to work there because your facilities don’t allow it. Consider wheelchair accessibility not only for bathrooms but also desks, break rooms, conference rooms, and the building itself. And pay attention to the height at which commonly used items are stored. Can someone in a wheelchair reach everything he or she needs to?
2. Build accessibility into your technology.
This applies to your website and customer-facing systems as well as your internal ones. And just in case you were wondering, the ADA applies to your e-commerce website as well as your physical offices. Internet grocery delivery services Peapod learned this lesson the hard way late last year when it redesigned its site to be more accessible to the vision-impaired, under orders from the Justice Department.
3. Consider disability etiquette training.
This is especially beneficial for hiring managers and those with client-facing jobs who may feel uncomfortable or not know how to act when they encounter disabled people. “People make mistakes when they have not taken the first step in the learning process, which is to simply become aware of their own fears and assumptions,” says Rafael Solis, co-founder and CMO of Braidio, which offers online training to help companies with both diversity and disability in the workplace.
What are the most important elements of disability etiquette? “When interacting with adults, treat them as adults,” Solis says. “It sounds simple, but too often when we are uncomfortable or don't know what to do, we have the potential to do things that we may not do in any other situation.”
With that in mind, he says, make sure to speak directly to the disabled person, in the same tone of voice you would use for anyone else, and to respect that person’s personal space, which includes any mobility aids such as a wheelchair or cane. If someone appears to need assistance, “always ask and wait for a response before you take action,” he adds. “A colleague with a disability may appear to be struggling, yet is perfectly fine and would prefer to complete the task unaided.”
4. Make sure disabled employees have the opportunity to mentor and be mentored.
Discomfort around people’s disabilities can sometimes mean they get left out of this kind of workplace relationship-building. “Ultimately, you are trying to foster an environment of support, and create relationships that break down barriers,” Solis explains.
Making sure disabled employees are included on both the mentor and mentee side of the equation creates several benefits. First, it helps able-bodied employees at all levels become more comfortable interacting with their disabled colleagues. It underscores that disabled people both have wisdom to share and are expected to perform their jobs, and learn, and grow within your organization, the same as everyone else. And then of course there’s the advantage of having the benefits of mentoring and being mentored extend to all your employees.
5. Support local disability campaigns.
“Promote a company culture that strives for workplace inclusion by collaborating with organizations such as the Campaign for Disability Employment, as well as local initiatives and campaigns,” Solis advises. It’s important to note that one in five Americans is disabled, he adds, a number that will increase to one in three over the next 15 years.
With those statistics in mind, it makes sense to start taking steps now to ensure your workplace is welcoming to everyone including those with disabilities. “Understanding who you are working with is going to become a core competency,” Solis says. “It’s not a coincidence that people who naturally have that skill do very well.”