When we talk about diversity and inclusion, who is not at the table?
When we set up the table, did we think about how people would get to it? All of them?
We’re starting to have the conversation about how, as Melinda Gates put it, “we’re sending our daughters a workplace built for our dads.” And many have been having the conversation for a long time about how racism and sexism manifest in actuality in spite the good intentions of corporate policy or processes that are meant to reduce discrimination.
We know that is not enough that people from certain demographic groups are not explicitly excluded. And yes, a lot of these conversations center around employment, advancement, and the workplace. That’s because equity is about money and who has access to it. We cannot address inequity without addressing how all of us can fully participate in society — and that includes economically.
Did you figure out who’s missing yet?
People with disabilities.
That’s almost 40 million people in the U.S. alone that we didn’t think about.
Sure, that number includes many people who may be older and retired and no longer in the workforce. But of Americans ages 16 to 64, 27.7% of those with a disability are employed compared with 72.8% of those without a disability. That’s less than half. And even if they are employed, they earn less. And that’s not even factoring people who have a disability in addition to being a member of another underrepresented or marginalized group.
That’s a huge opportunity we are missing to move the needle on equity and inclusion.
Let’s say you have a vision impairment or mobility issues, like using a wheelchair. How would you get to interviews, let alone to a job? Maybe there is public transportation available — but how long does it take you to get across town? What if you don’t live in an urban area? There’s a reason people with disabilities are more likely to be self-employed.
Yes, there are laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, that require employers or public places like schools or businesses to make certain accommodations. It’s a great start but not sufficient. Health care is a prime example of the difference between availability and accessibility. Those of us who work to close the gap in our communities are well aware of the difference between not discriminating and inclusion. And we can do better.
We need to put the same intentional effort into how we build our teams and run our organizations as we do into how we run our programs or build our products.
Here are some questions we can ask:
- Does this job actually require the ability to lift 30 pounds? Or a college degree?
- Could this job be done remotely, and does your organization have a culture and practices that support good communication regardless of where people are in the world at a given moment?
- If you’re holding a training or event, have you included accessibility information along with the location, or must people ask? Will the training be livestreamed or recorded? Must speakers attend in person?
- Does it matter that this work is done 9–5, or is availability only essential during specific times like team meetings, or as long as there is coverage during client hours? Is this advertised, or do employees need to request a flexible schedule?
- Where do we go to recruit for jobs and internships? Only (certain) colleges? Do people with disabilities know that this is a workplace that would welcome them?
- If you have an open plan office, are there spaces where people can take phone calls or work without interruption from coworkers who just have that one quick question?
- Is your website accessible? Would your charts be readable by someone with color blindness?
- What types of training do you provide to managers?
- Do you ask people in a seated audience to stand for recognition, or do you ask them to raise their hands?
Notice that how we answer those questions can impact people without disabilities as well.
Video conferencing and the ability to work remotely are beneficial for people who have difficulty getting around as well as out-of-state candidates who are relocating (college students, military spouses, et al.), parents having childcare issues, or colleagues on the road. Offices with quiet and/or individual working spaces benefit people with autism as well as people who need to focus on a particular task without interruption. Rooms without glass doors or panels are beneficial to someone who needs to adjust an IV line as well as nursing mothers. Plain language paired with visuals is beneficial to people who have a cognitive disability as well as to anyone trying to assist somebody who’s choking.
We’re facing increasingly complex challenges and we’re doing so while missing out on untapped potential — the same as we are when women and people of color are missing from leadership roles and from certain industries.
There are great organizations run by and for people with disabilities working on these issues. But as we know from the work to create more equitable workplaces for women or people of color, it is on all of us. So it is encouraging to see some organizations, with missions not specifically related to disability, that are working on inclusion of people with disabilities. For example, the Ford Foundation has started applying a disability lens to both their grantmaking and their organization. There are employers who specifically recruit for neurodiversity and who have created supportive work spaces. There has been more conversation around living with disability and efforts at increased visibility, thanks to the work of advocates and those who amplify their voices. As with all efforts aimed at equity and inclusion, there is still more to be done and more that we can do.
To be sure, disability includes a wide range of conditions. None of our organizations will ever be perfect for everyone.
Yet we can’t claim to practice inclusion if we don’t make it a practice to ask these questions instead of waiting for people with disabilities to lean in.
Maybe our office is in a historic building with stairs and that’s not something we can change in the near future. Being upfront with that information not only saves someone with mobility issues from having to ask or from showing up and not being able to get in on their own — it also signals that we thought about someone like them. It shows that when we think about potential employees or partners or clients, people with disabilities are included. Regardless of our positions, each of us has the opportunity to ask those question in what we do and how we do it.
Who’s missing from our table?
What are we doing to make sure that sitting at the table is actually a choice they can make?