Employers are already creating accommodating workplaces. Now it’s time to hire more people with disabilities.

Workplaces are becoming more accommodating for all workers. That is particularly helpful for people with disabilities.
Workplaces are becoming more accommodating for all workers. That is particularly helpful for people with disabilities.
Image: Monika Wisniewska via Shutterstock
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This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

Disabled people are a hugely underutilized workforce in the US. More than one in five people in the United States have a disability, but only one-third of working-age disabled people are employed. Employers are losing out on qualified (or even overqualified) candidates and disabled people are losing paychecks due to the stigma and perceptions of what it means to be disabled.

While the situation may seem dire, employment rates among disabled people are steadily rising as the general public gains a more nuanced understanding of disability—and a newfound appreciation for our skill-sets. And as the shape of work changes to better suit able-bodied people, in the form of flexible policies like the ability to work from work, disabled workers will also benefit.

“One of the trends to look for in 2019 to 2024 from all employers is training staff they already have, and thinking outside their normal box, says Janice (not her real name), an employment counselor at the Monmouth County Office of Workforce Development.That includes “recruiting and hiring disabled people…groups that normally have some type of stigma. In this very tight economy, employers have to be competitive,” Janice believes.

Janice declined to give her real name for this article because she was afraid of the possible repercussions during her next job search. She is disabled; her condition is lifelong, degenerative, and expensive. At the moment, she flourishes at her job due to tangible accommodations (squish-grip gel pens, a supportive desk chair with arms) and less tangible ones (the freedom to design her schedule around her energy levels).But her department is losing funding, and Janice may soon be out of a job.

Valuable Skills

Though employers may just be learning about our capabilities, disabled people are not a tiny minority category. We are woven into the fabric of society, in every industry, every state, every education level. But disabled people often can’t just exist in this world. We have to critically examine how we are existing, and how we can better navigate a world that isn’t really made for us. That’s what accommodations are: methods, tools, and ways to accomplish our goals, whether that’s as common as cooking a meal or important as managing a department.

The coping skills you learn to deal with your disability often translate into valuable professional skill-sets.Look at my professional life, for example. Because of my medical conditions, I’m incredibly organized. I have to be—otherwise, I would never remember anything. Pain and pain medications both stymie productivity and impair memory. On bad days, nerve pain and muscle spasms shoot through my body every few minutes. It’s akin to being surrounded by teenagers who are constantly whacking you with Wiffle bats. The pain is bad, but the distraction is worse. Taking pain medication will dull the pain, but it also turns my mind into a blurry sieve. So I’ve learned to externalize my brain in spreadsheets, to-do lists, monthly analyses, and checklists.

On a corkboard in my bedroom, I’ve pinned up lists of daily non-negotiable tasks (brushing my teeth), approved snacks (granola bars rank highly), and things I like to do (‘doing the dishes’ is mysteriously #4). Believe it or not, I have a tendency to forget about life-affirming hobbies that I enjoy if those hobbies are not immediately in front of me. When I’m fighting to get through a day, I won’t randomly remember something that helped me two weeks ago unless it goes onto one of my lists.

The same principle applies at work. I have a giant corkboard in my office filled with more than a dozen lists. There’s the daily to-do list, the weekly to-do list, the step-by-step processes to send an email blast or update the finicky product software. There are long-term goals and short-term goals and ad campaigns, all color-coded for the appropriate audience or platform.

My bosses love my lists. With just a quick stop by my desk, they can see what I’ll be working on for the next few weeks. My lists help me keep tabs on myself, and by extension, let my bosses keep tabs on me, too. And if I happen to be out of the office, anyone can easily slide into my seat, poke around my meticulously organized folders, and find whatever files they need.

I can only spend four days a week in the office—but that’s a perk. My position doesn’t require 40 full hours of work each week, so my boss only pays me for hours that I’m actually being productive, rather than scrolling on Reddit. I am fortunate to have an understanding boss who shares similar symptoms. We work in a happy synergy.

Accommodations help everyone

Some types of accommodations have gone mainstream, and forward-thinking businesses are changing the shape of work to better fit employees. One simple example is cashiering at a grocery store. In the US, cashiers typically stand. There’s no real reason for them to stand; in other countries, cashiers often have chairs or stools. Some disabilities prevent people from standing all day. Other conditions aren’t disabilities but affect employees just the same—as in the case of a 6’2” man who experienced severe back problems (paywall) after working in a cashier station designed for someone a foot shorter.

Traditional business sense says the tall man should just suck it up, that people who can’t stand for a long time should look for a different type of job. But these outdated beliefs show a fundamental lack of respect for all workers. If your boss expects only the highest level of productivity without giving you the tools to accomplish it, you will inevitably fail—disabled or not.

At Aldi, cashiers sit in ergonomically-designed stations. Around 90% of the discount supermarket chain’s products are the store’s own brand, and each item is marked with multiple barcodes so workers don’t have to twist and turn products to scan them. Instead of making workers pull long overnights like they do at 24-hour mega-marts, Aldi is only open during peak business hours. By redesigning the store from the ground up, Aldi can offer groceries at a lower price point (good news for consumers) while creating a sustainable working environment for employees. Now, other grocery stores may be feeling the pressure to manage their stores more like Aldi.

However, attitudes are slow to change, and unfortunately, policies change faster for some people than others. Isaac (not his real name) is a tech employee in his mid-20s who works in game development. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with a medical condition that affects his ability to get up in the morning, but otherwise has no impact on his performance. Due to a recent change in his condition, he needed to work at home for about a month while trying a different form of treatment.

According to company policy, he simply needed his doctor to sign off on some paperwork. Isaac submitted the forms and waited for HR to give him the thumbs-up. Initially, he was told he should receive approval within hours. But hours turned into days as HR sent his request to the company’s main headquarters, then to the legal department. Ultimately, he only received approval for his new working situation halfway through his last scheduled day in the office.

Isaac believes his lack of seniority played a role . Higher-ranking employees were permitted to work remotely during maternity leave, vacations, and honeymoons. “The company demonstrated for me that they had the ability to let people work from home. They had preemptively given me a laptop and [access] to the work servers…I don’t know why they had to make such a big deal out of it for me,” Isaac said. The process of requesting accommodations piled extra stress on him when he was already dealing with a lot.

In some senses, Isaac was lucky that his company was willing to work with him, even grudgingly. Other disabled workers struggle with even finding a job. Take Jessica Tomlinson. After earning a bachelor’s degree, Tomlinson started to apply for jobs. Like many disabled people, she avoided bringing up her disability (low vision) until the interview stage, hoping potential employers would evaluate her solely on her merits. But that rarely happened.

“While interviewing for a position as an itinerant tutor, my interviewer wasn’t interested in my transportation work-arounds. He simply told me I shouldn’t have come in since I don’t drive,” Tomlinson said. Other interviewers accused her of lying on her resume, while another exclaimed “This is going to be a short interview!” after learning about her disability.

Tomlinson eventually found work at a non-profit foundation that helps people who are blind or visually impaired. Her current office is outfitted with everything she needs to complete her job, from screen-reading software on her computer to tactile dots on the communal microwave. Once Tomlinson landed in an accommodating professional environment, her stress decreased and her productivity flourished. Tomlinson is now a certified vision rehab therapist with a master’s degree.

Getting to an office, staying in it all day, and returning home often poses an insurmountable logistical challenge for many disabled people. What if you didn’t have to worry about transportation, or headache-inducing fluorescent lights, or getting written up for taking too many bathroom breaks? Working in a self-controlled setting means disabled people’s productivity won’t be limited by their environment. That’s good for employees and good for business.

Companies are inching closer to improved accessibility, across the board. If the future is accessible, why not start changing things today?

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here