Interview: How to support employees with disabilities

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Interview: How to support employees with disabilities

As companies embrace remote work, there's new interest in hiring people with chronic illness or other disabilities. Founder of Tech Disability Project Natasha Walton shares insights about the trend and tips for how to support these employees for the long term.

Colette Des Georges

December 6, 2021 | 7 min read

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Cakelin Marquardt, a participant in Tech Disability project, has several mental and physical health conditions. The stress of working in male-dominated open offices with complex PTSD and ADHD caused them to have frequent autoimmune flares. At several organizations, their requests for a standing desk and a private work area were denied because it would seem unfair to other employees. These accessibility and inclusion issues led to Cakelin quitting several jobs before starting their own company

Cakelin’s story, shared in a blog post for Tech Disability Project, highlights many of the problems with trying to work as a person with a disability. Yet as work styles change and we shift to a largely remote workforce, Cakelin is a prime example of a highly skilled worker who could and should be easily empowered to work in a way that makes them comfortable—especially as company’s start to put more authentic effort into equity and inclusion.

We talked to Natasha Walton, founder of Tech Disability Project about why companies should be using this transition to hire more people with disabilities, and what they should keep in mind when it comes to supporting these new hires, since many considerations are more nuanced than they might seem.

Why companies are hiring more people with disabilities

The past year has seen an unprecedented period of employee turnover, and Natasha thinks that’s one reason that companies are excited about new opportunities to hire folks with disabilities. This community is a surprisingly huge part of the overall population—according to the CDC, 61 million people in the U.S.—26% of the country—are living with a disability.

According to Natasha, “People don’t realize just how many people around them are coping with a physical or mental disability. With the shift to remote work and ‘the new normal,’ organizations are realizing that they might have a new opportunity to connect with the community and attract new talent. In industries like tech, people have always been technically able to do most of their jobs remotely, but even in that space, there have been big changes in the last year. It’s been really great to see hiring managers expanding their thinking.”

There’s another force at work as well: the pandemic and the social changes in the U.S. over the past few years have also caused many companies to reevaluate their values, and to put a new level of emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Hiring people with disabilities is a key way for those companies to live those values.

Understanding the need for accommodations—and flexibility 

There’s a lot of overlap between hiring people with disabilities and remote work. Having a disability may mean going to more appointments, needing to take breaks to rest, being disproportionately affected by loud or hectic environments, or being unable to travel easily to work. For those and many other reasons, people with physical disabilities or mental illness might feel more comfortable in the flexible, asynchronous, and remote work world that many companies are moving toward.

But Natasha was also quick to point out that remote work isn’t a panacea for disabled employees, and that it can also have a negative impact on employees’ mental health or have other unforeseen consequences. Mariella Paulino, a guest on a recent Tech Disability Project panel, shared how, as someone who has a hearing disability, she’d gotten accustomed to reading lips in meetings—a task that’s much more difficult on Zoom. 

Natasha pointed to visual and auditory accessibility issues as something that almost every company should be thinking about more thoroughly. That includes using captioned video conferencing/webinar solutions to provide access for people with hearing disabilities, choosing software solutions designed for visual accessibility, and ensuring that internal resources can actually be accessed and understood by everyone.

Outside of those recommendations, she wasn’t overly prescriptive about what companies need to do to be inclusive in a remote-first environment.

“It’s less about finding a solution that’s perfect for everyone, and more about asking people what they, individually, need,” Natasha explained. “Many people need certain accommodations in order to be comfortable and successful, and companies have a responsibility to understand what those are. In many cases, a simple change can make a huge improvement to that person’s experience. But companies also don’t always need to worry about making accommodations universal.”

In fact, trying to find a one-size-fits-all approach to accessibility might be counterproductive, according to Natasha. While there are certain changes that can only help, like increasing accessibility, others might simply be impossible to create universal rules around. Some people might find meetings overly taxing, others might not communicate as easily through writing. Some people might find that steady bursts of work are best for their circumstances, others might need more breaks. Natasha likened it to trying to find chairs that are the exact perfect height for all of your employees—you’re better off having a variety of heights or better yet, enabling people to set the heights themselves, according to their own comfort level.

Every person’s needs are different. Two employees might even have the same disability but need totally different forms of accommodation. Finding a solution that works well for everyone requires an open and honest conversation. At Momentive, we build in feedback cycles where employees can share the accommodations they need as they arise and have policies in place to protect their ability to access support.

How to talk about disabilities at work

But transparency is a very tender area in the world of disabilities at work. According to research from the Center for Talent Innovation, only 39% of people with a disability have disclosed their disability to their manager. Far fewer had shared it with their teams (24%) or HR (21%). In a remote-first work culture, it would be even easier for needs to be hidden, suppressed, or overlooked. Employees are afraid of being penalized or judged for their disabilities, while managers are wary of prying into protected or personal health information. 

The tragic reality is that many people struggle to overcome obstacles that could be easily removed or made easier if they were able to speak up without fear. We asked Natasha how managers and other leaders should think about the balance of transparency and privacy.

“The conversation shouldn’t be structured around the question, ‘Do you have a disability,’” she said. “It should be around the question, ‘What do you need?’’ It should be clear to your new hire or teammate or employee that you value them, and you really want to support them, even if it seems like an inconvenience. I always tell people that if they need an accommodation, they shouldn’t hesitate to ask for it, and if they don’t, they’re not under any obligation to disclose.”

If you’re an employer looking to support employees better, you need to create a clear, safe channel for employees to voice their needs. It should be understood that you and the employee share the same goal—to create an environment where they can be successful—and that you’re willing to work with them to make that happen. Employees should also know that the conversation is always open, in case their circumstances change or they develop a disability later down the line. 

“It’s been really incredible to see positive changes in workplace attitudes over the past few years,” said Natasha.”Companies genuinely want to prioritize diversity, and they’re willing to put in the effort needed to actually make the change. On top of that, the changes of the last few years have put a lot more power in the hands of the employees. Businesses are much more open to hearing about what each individual needs. It feels like we’re finally starting to move toward a world where people with disabilities have a more equitable experience at work.”

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