4 Ways to Improve Your Company’s Disability-Inclusion Practices

JUNE 04, 2019

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal told the story of Nathan Mort, an employee of Gordon Food Service who tracks warranty claims and has a high-functioning form of autism. The article noted that the number of people with disabilities entering the workforce is rising — good news for the economy, for people with disabilities, and for employers.

Despite articles on the advantages that people with disabilities can offer employers, too many companies hold themselves back when it comes to hiring people with disabilities. They see hiring (some) persons with disabilities as being “the right thing to do” but do not see it as part of a talent strategy that will benefit the company and outweigh what they see as the potential expenses and risk. In fact, a recent study by the National Organization on Disability indicates that only 13% of companies in the U.S. have reached the Department of Labor’s target of having 7% disability representation in their workforce.

That mindset puts companies at a disadvantage when it comes to acquiring and leveraging the talent they need in today’s tight job market.

Hiring people with disabilities need not cost any more than hiring someone without a disability. Accommodations for the majority of people with disabilities cost nothing. And when there is a cost involved with providing technology or other tools, it’s usually less than $500 and there are tax incentives available to help.

Moreover, recent economic modeling (part of an award-winning research study conducted by Accenture, the American Association of People with Disabilities, and Disability:IN) found a strong correlation between financial performance and well-developed disability-inclusion practices.

How can a company update its thinking and strategies related to this neglected category of talent? We see four ways to make it happen:

1. Identify and change processes that support unconscious bias. Are your recruiting and hiring processes discouraging applicants with disabilities, or limiting their ability to demonstrate their strengths?

At Microsoft, managers realized that people with autism weren’t getting hired despite clearly having the required knowledge and intellect. As Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the company’s chief accessibility officer, told us, “We discovered that the problem was the interview process, so we did away with that process entirely for candidates with autism.” Microsoft instead began working with a local autism-support organization to bring in candidates for a different type of evaluation process. The assessment program involved a series of exercises designed to test teamwork and technical skills; it also provided real-time training. Now, says Lay-Flurrie, “we feel confident we haven’t overlooked a strong candidate simply because a common assessment practice doesn’t play to their strengths.”

This way of thinking also applies to people development and training processes. Even small changes in standard training programs can make a big difference.

2. Help all employees understand the challenges that persons with disabilities face and contribute to solutions. A little extra effort in this area will go a long way toward creating a work environment where every employee can contribute his or her best. Companies should consider required training for all employees with and without disabilities — especially anyone in a management or supervisory role. The primary goals of this training are to help people better understand and empathize with the challenges their colleagues may face and reduce the stigma of being disabled. Everyone should also know about tools and accommodations that are available to persons with disabilities, so that the burden of figuring out solutions is not solely on the person with the disability.

Camille Chang Gilmore, a vice president of HR at Boston Scientific, says the diversity and inclusion team at her company introduces new joiners to nine employee resource groups (ERGs), including one focused on empowering persons with disabilities, within their first 30 days on the job. “We strongly encourage new joiners to become engaged with those groups, whether or not they themselves need the particular resources being offered,” she said.

3. Strengthen the hiring pipeline by engaging with community groups. One of the challenges companies encounter in tapping the talent pool of persons with disabilities is the very first step: identifying candidates. It’s a connection issue. Persons with disabilities may be reluctant to apply for jobs they don’t think they will get, and so their talent and interest remain under the hiring radar. But the fix isn’t difficult. Companies can start to build a robust recruitment pipeline in part by engaging with groups that support people with disabilities.

Four years ago, T-Mobile started sponsoring the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. As Bri Sambo, senior program manager of military & diversity sourcing, told us, “The youth tournaments give us a presence among the under-18 crowd and their parents. We talk to them about what it’s like to work at T-Mobile. We encourage them to apply. Many of them have never considered that they have an option for independent life.”

4. Create a mutually supportive community. Training programs and opportunities to connect with other employees will help ensure that persons with disabilities develop and succeed. Mentoring and coaching initiatives are also vital lifelines. Persons with disabilities who serve in senior positions should strongly consider becoming mentors or champions — both internally and externally.

Wil Lewis, senior vice president of diversity and inclusion at Bank of America, told us that when the company conducted a survey of employees with disabilities, the findings were telling: “The survey included questions about how employees rate our existing programs and what was needed,” he said. “What was interesting was that they told us they have the right training and accessibility, but what they really wanted was more introductions to people like them. They wanted to meet other employees who were ‘out’ with their disabilities.” To address this feedback, the disability ERG opened its online system to allow members to see who is near them (with each individuals’ permission) and who the other members of the ERG are nationally as well (similarly, with permission). Previously, this information was kept private. “This approach is welcomed by the members, and it has amplified the connections made by our colleagues with disabilities,” Lewis said.

Start the conversation now. Of Accenture’s U.S. employees, 4.5% self-identified themselves as having a disability in 2018, up from 3% in 2017.  (Two of us — Chad and Laurie — are among that group; our third author (Ted) also has a disability.) We fully realize, however, that this percentage is likely well below reality considering the many reasons that employees may have to keep their disabilities hidden (not the least of which are societal and workplace-related stigma that exist). But we’re making progress.

We know from personal experience that only when these important issues are on the table will important discussions occur, priorities be set, and plans turn into actions.

We’re also confident that your current employees want to have these discussions; they want to know that bringing their whole selves to work means even their disabilities — without fear of being treated differently. Employees who serve as caregivers to persons with disabilities will also benefit from the topic’s increased visibility and the company’s increasingly empathetic approach.

Take these four steps; it’s a commitment with no downside.

Ted Kennedy, Jr. is a Connecticut state senator and chairman of the board of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

Chad Jerdee is Accenture’s general counsel and chief compliance officer.

Laurie Henneborn is a managing director at Accenture Research.