Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. What do you think when you hear those words?

In the tech sector where I have the most experience, gender immediately comes to mind. We need more women in tech! Race and ethnicity, as well; tech is dominated by wealthy, white, Western employees and leaders. Maybe you’re thinking of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, an additional axis on which people are marginalized. But what about disability?

When was the last time you attended or heard about a conference or event focused on getting more disabled people into your industry? How many times have you had an in-depth conversation about attracting more disabled applicants to your job postings? I would guess that most of us would say never. After all, the idea is laughable to many—disabled people are broken, either incapable of working or not worth the money, and are a drain on society. They have nothing of value to offer. These aren't things most of us would say out loud, but they are common thoughts and reactions to disabled people existing in the world.

Disability needs to be part of inclusivity

Disability is frequently left out of DEIB—diversity, equity, inclusivity, and belonging—conversations because of stigma like this: ableism. It is a belief that disabled people are less simply because of differences in their bodies and/or brains. And it's wrong. The population of disabled people is just as valuable, just as necessary, just as useful to employers as any other community, assuming they're supported appropriately—just like any other community. And not coincidentally, that's where we as leaders usually fall short.

Did you know that at least one in five Canadians has a disability? That is 20% of the population, over six million people in Canada alone. It’s even higher in the United States, closer to one in four people—and the number increases for countries with more poverty, those who have experienced war in recent generations, and/or those in the global south. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that we’re in the middle of a mass-disabling event right now: at least one third of people who contract COVID-19 are dealing with long COVID, and while we're starting to see other long-term complications post-COVID infection, including heart disease, we still have no idea if prior COVID infection is going to lead to the equivalent of post-polio syndrome in the next 10, 20, or 50 years.

I mention the current state of the world to make it clear how crucial the following statistics are. Disabled people are less likely to complete high school, college, or university than their peers who are not disabled. Only 50% of working-age disabled people are employed, compared to 75% of those without disabilities. And even worse, employed disabled people have a median income that is $10,000 less than non-disabled people. Those classified as severely disabled are two to three times more likely to be living in poverty than those with more mild disabilities or those with no reported disability. Finally, more than a quarter of disabled people have not disclosed their disability to their employer. The underrepresentation of disabled people and lack of awareness of workers' disabilities allows us as leaders to stick our heads in the sand regarding the needs of disabled people, as applicants, as employees, and as customers.

The pandemic improved accessibility ... briefly

Speaking of the needs of disabled people, the pandemic has been an interesting experience for many people who had disclosed their disability or disabilities to their employers, friends, family, and wider communities and asked for accommodations, only to be rejected because their requests were "unreasonable." But then in March 2020, companies all over the globe were suddenly able to support work from home for their entire workforce, with little or no warning. Conferences switched to remote formats, and some started thinking about captioning and other accessibility issues for the first time. Friends and community groups who had previously insisted on in-person meetups jumped into video calls headfirst, making these events accessible to many disabled people for the first time.

Now, though, these accommodations are beginning to disappear. Workers are being forced back into the physical office (or leaving jobs that attempt to force a return). Conferences are switching back to in-person formats and abandoning the knowledge gained and infrastructure established for remote options, affecting disabled people along with non-disabled community members who lack the time or money to travel or are located too far away. The pandemic made clear that accommodation was and is always possible; it just was not considered worthwhile to make these accommodations for disabled people.

Leaders’ role in increasing accessibility

So what can we do as leaders? What are our responsibilities, morally and ethically, toward disabled people and accessibility in general? And how can we make our companies and ultimately our communities more open, welcoming, and accepting of disabled people in all respects—from our hiring and other internal processes to our external work, such as selling products or services?

I'll start with the easy part: Hiring disabled people is the morally and ethically correct thing to do. Of course we cannot employ people who are unable to perform the tasks required for the job, but we must broaden our understanding of who can complete tasks and handle responsibilities. Is a wheelchair user fundamentally unable to handle an office job? No, of course not. They may have difficulties accessing the office due to inaccessible architecture but the actual tasks required of the job are not, by default, impossible for someone who uses a wheelchair. Disabled people are experts on themselves, their skills, and their abilities, so trust that if they've applied to a job in your company, they believe they can perform the tasks as specified. And if the moral and ethical argument isn’t enough to sway you, consider the existence of accessibility legislation in many countries and jurisdictions. You may have legal obligations around accessibility to your employees and customers that you’re currently unaware of, putting you in a precarious situation as a company.

Another element to keep in mind is accommodations, both in the application process and as part of someone's period of employment with your company. Accommodations are wide-ranging, and even people with the same disability will not necessarily require the same modifications. Most employment-related legislation indicates that accommodations must be reasonable but we should all remember that it's up to us to determine what reasonable is. We as leaders have the power to ensure greater representation of disabled people in our industries, and we should use it. Make it clear to applicants and existing employees that requests for accommodation are welcomed, and that they will be taken seriously and treated respectfully.

What else can we do to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, and a sense of belonging for disabled people in the workforce? A simple first step could be creating and making available an accessibility statement, both for the products and/or services our organizations provide and an internal one, for employees. As with other groups that fall under the DEIB umbrella, disabled people are looking for hints and clues that they will be accepted and welcomed into our organizations, and accessibility statements can provide this, at least initially.

We should all become more aware of the casual ableism that exists in our society and thus in our workplaces. As with other marginalized groups, disabled people often experience microaggressions. Being aware of these, educating employees about them, and most importantly, believing your disabled employees when they report microaggressions can make the difference between a company that hires disabled employees and one that can keep disabled employees for longer than a few months.

As a disabled person, a disabled employee, and now as a disabled leader, I know that the disabled community has value in this world, and not just as employees. I also know that many leaders and companies have been unaware of this value for many years; even as DEIB has emerged as an important topic for recruiting and retention, disability hasn't been included to the extent needed. I hope that this article has made it clear that including disabled employees is beneficial to both those employees and their companies and organizations.

Leadership and inclusivity

Learning leaders and other corporate leaders are facing changing expectations around their skillsets and behaviors. The expectation of an inclusive—and accessible—workplace is increasingly prominent as DEIB becomes a priority in many organizations worldwide. Learn more about the changing leadership paradigm in Level Up: Preparing for a New Learning Leadership Paradigm, a new eBook from The Learning Guild.