Toby Mildon is a diversity and inclusion architect and founder of consultancy Mildon. He is also author of Inclusive Growth: Future proof your business by creating a diverse workplace.
The novel coronavirus has disrupted business operations and how individuals continue to work in their roles. An inclusive employer will consider the needs of every individual in their organization; however, disabled employees are often overlooked. But a few practical steps can help employers support disabled employees during this unprecedented time.
A note about language
Throughout this article I’ll refer to disabled people (as in identity-first language). This is my personal preference as somebody born with a rare neuromuscular disability. Some people prefer person-first language: for instance, someone with a disability. It’s putting the person before the diagnosis to avoid using labels to define somebody. If you work with a disabled person or somebody with a disability, it’s worth discussing what language they like to use that makes them feel included.
Include disabled people
This sounds really obvious but when organizations talk about diversity and inclusion they often forget to include disability. They talk about the importance of women in leadership and the gender pay gap, the need to include people from an ethnic minority background, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. And June is dedicated to LGBT+ Pride month.
So many businesses are #Diverseish — a term coined by the Valuable 500 campaign. It means they’re selectively inclusive of some types of people within a company, group or business, depending on which type suits the company best. When talking about diversity, try not to think in silos or put people into singular boxes. Think intersectional. I, for example, am disabled, a white man, gay and sarcastic. Only some of these are covered by the UK Equality Act 2010 legislation where I live, mind you.
Listen to employee experiences
Reach out to your employees to explore how they are feeling during the pandemic and what their concerns are. You should do this for all employees — not just people with disabilities. Create a survey, conduct a Zoom focus group or set up an anonymous "inbox" for people to air their concerns. Three simple questions you can ask your people are:
- How does it feel to work here?
- What is causing you to think about going elsewhere?
- What made your friends leave?
It’s very powerful if you can segment this feedback by different groups. You might find that disabled employees are less likely to think about going elsewhere, for instance. Or, that disabled employees feel less engaged than your non-disabled employees. Once you have these insights you can take practical steps to remove any speed humps or roadblocks that are slowing people down or stopping them performing to the best of their abilities.
One size does not fit all
So many businesses have had to rapidly change their business model, tools and leadership styles to enable employees to work remotely during lockdown. Many businesses are not rushing back to the office because it’s impractical for everybody to return to work at once and maintain social distancing.
You would be forgiven for thinking that most employees need similar kit to get their job done like a standard issue laptop and cell phone. However, for some disabled people to perform in their roles and compete on a level playing field they need workplace accommodations. Ask your employees who already have workplace accommodations in your office whether or not these should be transferred to their home. Ask employees what else will help them be more productive at work.
For example, if you are now using online meeting platforms like Zoom, Google , Microsoft Teams and suchlike, ensure that accessibility features, like closed captioning, can be turned on. Some of these platforms are more accessible than others, so ask your disabled employees which tools they find the most accessible to collaborate with colleagues.
Disabled by association
Be mindful of employees in your workforce who are disabled by association. They could be the partner or sibling of somebody who is disabled. Their partner or relative might still be "shielding" because of their condition and the risk that the pandemic poses for them, whilst everybody else is thinking of returning to work.
Your employee might be apprehensive about returning to work with everybody else to protect their partner or relative. Identify employees who could be disabled by association and ensure that you put the right support in place for them and the people they live with or care for.
See the opportunities
The pandemic has actually opened up some opportunities for disabled people. For instance, disabled people may be benefiting from the greater flexibility that comes with working from home and not having to commute on public transport. For instance, I have wired up my homeworking station to Amazon Echo where I can regulate my temperature with voice commands (with my disability I get cold very easily). See this as an opportunity of retaining your existing disabled employees or appealing to disabled talent going forwards.
Technology has really come to the forefront. We are using online meeting platforms to keep in touch, digital "whiteboards" to sketch out new ideas and digital Kanban boards to organize our work. And there are people who previously shopped in store who are now buying everything online.
Digital accessibility has shot up the priority list for many chief technology officers. Can somebody who is deaf complete your mandatory training without closed captioning? Conduct audits to assess how accessible your systems are so that everybody can use them (including that employee typing with one hand because they have a baby in their other arm — we call this situationally impaired in the trade).