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Individuals of All Abilities Succeed Together

leadership transition Aug 03, 2023

- By Sophie Pinkoski

As we work toward creating fully inclusive work environments, we can reflect on lessons learned from the pandemic. Many leaders pivoted their organizations to enable their staff to work from home, adjusting to individual circumstances where needed. This remote work experiment showed us that not only did many individuals thrive in this setting, but providing the appropriate technology and tools for people at home is more possible than we originally thought.

We can see now how adapting to individuals’ needs is the best way to foster productivity and work satisfaction.

Alternative work approaches can also benefit persons with different abilities This is particularly important to elevate, given how wary individuals are of being discriminated against due to unconscious biases in society. With this in mind, many people of different abilities make the choice not to disclose their accessibility needs, even if this means not having in place what would truly support their success.

According to an Accenture survey of 5,870 respondents, only 24% of individuals disclose their disabilities. Coqual found in their 2017 report that of the 36% of college-aged individuals working with disabilities, only 3.2% chose to disclose. Fairfield University associate professor, Sonya Huber sheds light on these statistics, stating that “It’s difficult to disclose at work because most of us know about cases of overt or covert discrimination in employment. People are frightened for good reason”. Even with laws like the Accessible Canada Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S., protecting people from being fired or overlooked in the hiring process due to their disability, discrimination can still manifest in other ways.

It’s up to leaders to nurture a safe, non-judgmental culture that allows their team to show up as their most authentic selves.

When people can be their true self at work, they don’t have to expend as much energy on stressful masking behaviors to hide their different abilities. What’s more, when people see their peers being open about their needs, it encourages others to disclose their own situations. The key to encouraging your team to disclose what supports would enhance their success, is in building a network that makes each individual feel safe to be themselves.

So, how can you encourage your team to disclose what they really need when individuals may feel wary to do so?

Move forward with discretion and confidentiality ––When individuals with disabilities disclose their specific needs, it won’t be to everyone at once. They’re going to determine who is safest to share with first and refrain from disclosing to anyone likely to express negative views. If they disclose to you as their leader, maintaining their confidentiality is not only a legal and ethical responsibility, but also a crucial aspect of building positive and trusting work environments. Confidentiality must also be considered If additional supports, such as necessary equipment, need to be formally requested. Prepare to collaborate with individuals to brainstorm the best option to help them to do their job most effectively. Listen to them when they have specific instructions for how to address outside questions about their specific needs. Neither you nor your team need to know the extent of their situation. With permission from the individual, a third-party assessor or guide can also be included to help support this process and ongoing conversations.

Be as unobtrusive as possible when gathering the least amount of information needed to find the best solutions for them.

All you need to know is that they required different approaches to thrive in their job and they are trusting you to help them make the process as easy for them as possible.

Build support networks through Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) –– ERGs are employee-led groups that offer support for people seeking safe spaces to share their experiences. Individuals with disabilities can find significant support through groups catered to them. Employee Resource Groups can often advocate for further career development and opportunities for individuals who may otherwise be overlooked.

Make use of available Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) –– EAPs are workplace-based programs designed to provide support and assistance to employees facing personal or work-related challenges that may affect their well-being, job performance, or overall mental health. They are often offered as part of an employee’s benefit package and are meant to help employees navigate various issues and improve their quality of life.

As a leader, it’s important that your team knows of existing employee resources available to them.

And when team members come to you to address challenges for them within your organization, be prepared to listen. Going forward, consider including members of these communities or inclusion groups in strategic meetings addressing processes within the organization.

Accepting them in good faith when they come to you is a requirement, not a request ––While you may not always be able to approve their request as originally described, having an open discussion to find an appropriate alternative will ultimately help them do their best work. “Disclosing a disability to an employer enables a person to live one’s life authentically and be able to bring one’s whole self into work,” says Executive Director of Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Kathy Flaherty.

Your willingness to have these good faith conversations with your team members signals that they have options available to them if they need it. What’s more, offering multiple solutions to fit the unique challenges individuals face allows you to add to your toolkit for future team members who might need them one day.

Educate your team on unconscious biases –– An integral part of creating a safe environment for individuals to disclose their specific needs is offering the appropriate training to ensure your team understands the challenges others experience within the workplace. This allows you to raise awareness to confront your team’s unconscious biases and behaviours. This way, your team can comprehend that granting individual requests isn’t an excuse or show of favoritism. As disability rights attorney, Eve Hill explains, “The accommodation changes how you do the work. It doesn’t change whether you do the work. You still have to meet productivity requirements, the basic outcomes of the job, just in different ways, or in a different location, or using different equipment”.

Normalizing different abilities and offering the necessary supports to manage their way of working is a huge step toward combating discrimination.

There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to your team’s work process. Each individual knows what routine and tools work best for them. Be prepared for the inevitability that someone will eventually need to approach their work differently.

All in all, the more you do to set a positive example, promoting inclusion for your team, the more comfortable they will feel bringing their most authentic self to work.

Alleviating their stress of managing their individual needs on their own will give them more energy to put toward doing their job as successfully as they can.


Further Reading:

Accessibility in Schools and the Community Rick Hansen Foundation 

What are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)?, Great Place to Work

Make it Safe for Employees to Disclose Their Disabilities, Harvard Business Review

4 Ways to Improve Your Company’s Disability Inclusion Practices, Harvard Business Review

Only 4% of Employees Disclose a Disability, But New Tools and Training Could Upend that Trend, Forbes

5 Steps to Disclosing an Invisible Disability at Work, The Muse

Disability Disclosure: Employer and Employee Perspective, Accessibility.com

The Why’s and How’s of Disclosure, Integrated Advisors

Navigating Disclosure: What Employees Need to Know, Canadian Mental Health Association

How to Disclose a Disability to Your Employer (And Whether You Should), New York Times

A Job Coach’s Tips on Disclosure in the Workplace, ConnectABILITY

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