Create a respectful workplace for people with disabilities

Shutterstock_777969256According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in four adults in the U.S. — nearly 61 million people — is living with a disability that impacts their life activities, including work.

In 1990, The Americans with Disabilities Act became law, prohibiting discrimination based on disability. And while Americans with disabilities are protected by the law, some employers still overlook crucial elements to maintaining inclusivity in the workplace.

Disability inclusion means understanding the relationship between the way people function and how they participate in society. It means making sure everybody has the same opportunities to participate in every aspect of life to the best of their abilities and desires.

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, here are five points for making your workplace more inclusive.

  1. Not all disabilities are visible.

Although the accounting profession came in at the top of’s list of The best careers for the physically disabled, not all disabilities are physical. Cognitive disabilities or mental health disorders such as ADHD, anxiety or depression, are not visible but impact a person’s life. Chronic illnesses can also impact a person’s day to day functions. Disabilities we can’t see could lead us to view others as being rude or inattentive, but the person may just need a little support or leniency to get the job done. 

People with chronic illnesses, cognitive disabilities or other less-visible conditions may have difficulty meeting deadlines or concentrating — especially during a global pandemic. If you question a colleague’s quality of work, avoid insinuations and consider asking a question. Perhaps something like: This isn’t what I was looking for, but can you explain the process you used to complete this?

Be thoughtful in your communication.

  1. Employees with a disability have the right to choose the terms of

Some people with disabilities openly communicate about it; others prefer discretion. In any case, your organization should have a crystal-clear protocol for how employees can request sensible accommodations. The protocol should be visible to existing employees in the handbook or other office materials, and on recruiting web pages for potential hires.

Learn to ask new employees — direct reports or team members — the right questions. When first establishing work relationships or launching new projects, you could ask: Is there anything you’d like me to know that might affect your performance? or What kind of support can I provide to help you accomplish your tasks comfortably? Also, consider scheduling a recurring check-in meeting.

Be kind and avoid pushing an employee to reveal their disability if they’re not comfortable doing so.

  1. Discriminatory language — including jokes — is unacceptable.

Fortunately, language has evolved greatly over time. Words that were once certified medical terms are considered egregious today. Words like lame, invalid, nuts, psycho, etc. are considered ableist language as they are offensive and oppressive. Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities or people who are perceived to have them.

Reducing human beings to their disabilities suggests that they are somehow inferior to those without disabilities. There should be no tolerance for ableist language or microaggressions in the workplace. Make that the rule and enforce it in accordance with your organization’s disciplinary policies. And encourage your employees to speak up and report the use of discriminatory language.

  1. Knowledge is power.

Learn about your unconscious biases to avoid a misstep. Being educated will help you and your staff recognize and respect behaviors that may be related to specific disabilities.

Staff will need access to training materials — courses, webcasts, brochures — to learn about situations people with various types of disabilities experience in mainstream society. Additional factors — culture, ethnicity, sex, gender-identity, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background — also shape people’s experience of discrimination. For example, some communities consider mental health to be taboo, which can lead to withdrawal or feeling ashamed. The CDC provides great resources on disability inclusion to get you started and you could hire a professional speaker to educate your employees.

  1. The accounting profession needs to be inclusive.

A person with a disability may be discouraged to apply for a job for fear of discrimination or harassment, and some might not see accounting firms as a potential employer.

Organizations like the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), The Arc, and Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) can help you understand how to create inclusive hiring processes.

For more ideas about workplace inclusivity, check out Foundation Diversity and Inclusion Programs and consider registering for the "Microaggressions in the Workplace" webcast taking place on Nov. 9.

Association Staff