Leaders: Take Action During National Disability Employment Awareness Month

October 18, 2022 Doug Glener

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in the US. For more than 70 years, it’s been set aside to highlight and address the challenges people with disabilities face in the workplace—and it’s needed.

People with disabilities are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than those without disabilities (8.3 vs. 3.2%). They also can face an obstacle course of difficulties in the workplace. Basic challenges include environments that are hard to navigate and inadequate policies, systems, and services.

Once hired, people with disabilities may face insidious challenges like biases, unfair assumptions, or flat-out discrimination. This can make them fearful of being teased or harassed, being viewed as lazy or incompetent, or being considered unfit for promotion.

About 30% of the working population has a visible or invisible disability. Invisible (or non-apparent) disabilities include depression, ADHD, autism, diabetes, cancer, fibromyalgia, lupus, and PTSD, among many others.

A person with a disability may have many concerns about their condition—so much so that they hide it. The following statistics dramatically illustrate the depth of their fears:

This deserves your attention—because someone on your team may be struggling.

The good news is that leaders like you can help people with disabilities succeed. And you can experience immediate benefits—such as a 30% increase in productivity and a 30% decrease in turnover—when you do.

Here are some approaches you can use to set team members with disabilities up for success:

Create Psychological Safety

Foster an environment of psychological safety in the workplace. Never criticize or punish people for speaking their minds or sharing an unpleasant truth. Let all your people know their opinions are welcomed and valued.

Psychological safety is essential for any kind of workplace success—especially for people with disabilities. They are far more likely than others to feel anxious (40% versus 18%) and isolated (37% versus 8%).

Make trustworthiness the foundation of your leadership style. Be honest. Show integrity. Be kind.

Know Your Biases

We all have cognitive biases. It comes with being alive and it’s not a cause for shame. The brain uses biases to filter out unessential information and make quick judgments. As a rule, biases become a problem only when they hurt others.

A good first step toward understanding bias is to learn about the more than 100 different kinds of biases. Not all are obvious. A quick online search will reveal innumerable articles and books on the topic if you want to know more.

As an example, confirmation bias—seeking out information that supports an existing point of view and dismissing facts that contradict it—is an unconscious bias that can distort your perceptions of people with disabilities. You may have preconceptions that they are less capable and look for supporting evidence. This is worth some introspection. Ask yourself “How capable do I think people with disabilities are at work tasks?” Be ready to challenge your answers. Then act on what you discover.

Role Model Inclusiveness

As a leader, you have outsized influence in changing the work environment for the better. Role modeling is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. It's a fact that junior-level managers imitate the behaviors of more senior leaders. If you create a welcoming and friendly space, your people are likely to follow your example.

What if your role modeling doesn't create positive change in some of the people on your team? That's the time to have private, one-on-one conversations with individuals who are still making unkind remarks. Your job as a leader is to let them know that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. End of conversation.

The Many Benefits of Inclusion

Creating an equitable workplace for people with disabilities is the right thing to do. The skills needed to achieve this are the bedrock of inspired leadership: creating psychological safety, uncovering your biases, and role modeling inclusiveness. Team members with disabilities will benefit—and so will everyone else.

Bringing people with disabilities into your workplace also benefits your company. Businesses committed to including persons in this population generate 28% higher revenue, double their net income, and have 30% higher profit margins than less inclusive competitors.

An equitable workplace benefits everyone. Invest the time to create a welcoming environment for people with disabilities—and watch the transformation happen.

The writer of this blog has a disability.

About the Author

Doug Glener

Doug Glener is the senior copywriter at Blanchard®. He earned a BA in English from Vassar College, is the author of two books, and has written for Harvard Business School, Training Magazine, Chief Learning Officer, The Financial Times, The United Way, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, The Holocaust Museum, The Norwegian Tourist Board, Michael Jackson, and many other renowned individuals and organizations.

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