Individuals of All Abilities Succeed Together

leadership transition Apr 26, 2023

- By Sophie Pinkoski

As we work toward creating more inclusive work environments, we can take one lesson from the pandemic: offering accommodations to individuals who need them lets them do their best work. The remote work experiment showed us that setting up 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.

One significant group that benefits from alternative approaches to work like these is people with different abilities This is particularly important to manage, however, given how wary individuals are of being discriminated against due to unconscious biases against them. With this in mind, many are making the conscious choice not to disclose their accessibility needs, even if this means missing out on potential options to support them.

According to an Accenture survey of 5,870 respondents, only 75% of individuals disclose their disabilities. Furthermore, Coqual found in their 2017 report that of the 36% of college-aged individuals working with disabilities, only 3.2% chose to disclose. Associate professor at Fairfield University, 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 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, therefore, to nurture a safe, non-judgemental 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 behaviours to hide their different abilities. What’s more, when people see their peers being open about their experiences, it encourages others to disclose their own. The key to encouraging your team to disclose is in building a support network around them that makes them 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 –– Contrary to what you might expect, 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 toward them. If they disclose to you as their leader in order to request accommodations, this too, is going to be an ongoing process. 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.

Be as unobtrusive as possible when gathering information you need to find the best solutions for them.

All you need to know is 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.

As a leader, it’s important to make sure your team knows of existing employee resource groups available to them.

And when team members come to you to address challenges for them within your organization, be prepared to listen to them. Going forward, ensure you include members of these communities in strategic meetings addressing processes that will impact them directly.

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 people others experience within the workplace. This allows you to raise awareness toward and 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 favouritism. As disability rights attorney, Eve Hill defines it, “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”. What’s more, these conversations challenge social norms and expectations. “We think of health as the norm in our culture, but it’s really a fantasy that everybody in the workplace is in perfect health. There are many people struggling with chronic illness. We need to normalize it more,” explains Kate Willar Virant, author of Psychology Today blog “Chronically Me: The Emotional Landscape of Chronic Illness”.

Normalizing different abilities and illness and offering accommodations to manage their limitations is a huge step toward combating the discrimination that prevents individuals from disclosing what will support their success.

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 ask for accommodations eventually.

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.

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 effectively as they can.


Further Reading:


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,

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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