Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: It Starts With Trust

Jodi Singer, a Director with our Global Pursuit Team in Philadelphia is a mother of twin boys — Ryan, who has autism and Jordan who does not. The boys are 12 years old and when Jordan was deciding on a service project to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah next spring, he decided to write a book — a fictional story based on his experiences having a brother with autism.

Making Lemonade from Lemons: An Autism Story is available for purchase now and Jordan is visiting various schools to read the book to students. He wants children to learn about his brother so they will be more inclined to be friends with people with disabilities. His biggest hope is that Ryan will be able to form deep relationships while he’s in school.

As you can imagine, Jodi is incredibly proud of both of her children. She also marvels at Jordan’s ability to talk about his brother, because when she first learned that Ryan had autism, she didn’t tell anyone outside her immediate family, worried how they would react.

She waited a month before telling her colleagues at PwC, but says when she finally did, they couldn’t have been more supportive. They remain so today. She says many ask questions to better understand autism and Ryan’s challenges. They support her personally and professionally when she has to go to a school meeting or therapist appointment. Many donated to her family’s Autism Speaks crowdfunding page via PwC’s Giving Campaign last year to support Jordan’s book and then many promoted his book to their social networks when it was published.

She says sharing this part of her family life at work has helped her meet and connect with colleagues who have children or relatives with autism, creating a support network which enables her to do a better job at PwC because she can talk openly about her personal life. Her children also inspire her to speak out so others feel comfortable sharing this part of their lives with their employers too.

Importantly, in order for that to happen, businesses need to start asking themselves how to build trust in their workforce so employees feel safe disclosing their own disabilities, or the fact that they are caregivers for loved ones with disabilities or special needs.

A new survey — In the Workplace: The Working Mother Report — sponsored by PwC, finds 14% of employees with visible disabilities and 33% with non-visible disabilities have not shared their disability to their employers. In fact, many respondents said they do their best to hide their disability out of fear that misperceptions and stigma will keep them from getting a job or limit their options once hired.

The survey also finds that women struggle with disability more than men. Nearly half (45%) of all disabled working mothers say, “they frequently or occasionally struggle to balance work and personal life demands.” Women are also less likely to say “their compensation is fair, their opinion counts, their co-workers respect them, and/or their supervisor supports them in work/life balance.”

The concerns identified in the survey are disheartening since too often women may already be dealing with societal gender stereotypes that make them less apt to ‘lean in’. When they face additional bias for a disability, the survey says it feels like “two strikes” against them.

Armed with this knowledge, we need to look for ways to bring about change. At PwC we think trust is built through open communication and honest talk about the value that individuals with disabilities bring to our firm and how they help foster an even more inclusive environment.

Last fall we introduced an internal ‘Neurodiversity at PwC’ video series to help raise awareness among our people about different ways of thinking. We also have an internal Ability Reveals Itself website that profiles our own professionals with disabilities and offers resources such as a document about what to consider when disclosing a non-visible disability.

As a board member of the National Organization on Disability (NOD), I am also working to encourage a national conversation about how employers can create more trusting relationships with employees who have disabilities. We worked with NOD to help us figure out what internal changes to make to create a more inclusive workforce, including using the organization’s Disability Inclusion Accelerator. The program surveys and benchmarks a company to see how it stacks up against pacesetting companies’ practices and then helps craft a customized action plan to increase inclusion and build buy-in across an organization.

This resource has been helpful to us here at PwC to figure out what internal changes we can make to foster a more inclusive workplace. For us this isn’t just about corporate or social responsibility, but about recruiting the top talent to take to our clients. People with disabilities bring a diversity of approach, thought and creative problem solving skills that are so needed in the business world. But we can only harness this power if someone trusts their employer to engage in a discussion about what they need to be positioned for success.

I know first hand how daunting it can be to start that conversation. When my son Braden was born in 2005 with Down syndrome, I was concerned how my team would react to the fact that suddenly I needed to make big changes at work to take on a more active caregiver role at home. I pushed through my concerns and told my co-workers and everyone not only came together to support me, but it strengthened us as a group. I also found my passion.

Often what people are afraid will be a negative, becomes positive. When you trust, engage and are open about disability, it can launch a proactive dialogue, change dynamics and become a connector — all of which can help you win in the marketplace.

It’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month, so there is no time like the present to have these conversations. Jodi and her family know it. I know it. And, I hope more and more businesses start discovering this truth too. It all starts with trust.