Diversity inclusion in the workplace: Welcoming and catering for people who have a disability.

Benjamin Kluwgant · 19 Aug

Workplaces are the home of many different types of people, and it is up to HR managers to create workplace cultures that promote and encourage diversity inclusion. A big part of this inclusion involves making the workplace accessible and friendly to those who are disabled.

People often don’t realise how common disabilities are in the workforce. Statistically, one in every five Australians has some sort of disability which can make some of the things that many people take for granted, a great deal harder.

When people think of disabilities, they often picture someone in a wheelchair that has trouble getting around. They picture someone who needs a ramp or elevator for fair mobility, their own dedicated parking space so they can get in and out of their cars with ease, and larger, more accessible bathrooms.

While these might be some of the more typical disabilities, the reality is that disabilities can be (and most of the time are) far more complex than that.

A disability doesn’t have to be a physical handicap. Intellectual, psychiatric, sensory, neurological and challenges relating to learning are also all disabilities. There are even some diseases (for example, HIV), which can render someone disabled as well.

Our world is slowly but surely evolving into a place where diversity is embraced with open arms. Gone are the days where just because someone might be ‘different’ in some way, they aren’t given the same rights as everyone else.

So, ensuring that people who live with any sort of disability are welcomed and catered for isn’t only a non-negotiable, it’s one of the fundamentals of inclusive workplace cultures.

What does the law have to say about it?

Australia has very strict laws about the way people are expected to treat those with disabilities. The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 treats discriminatory behaviour against people who live with a disability as unlawful and promotes equal opportunities for these individual’s rights for employment and access on all fronts.

The Australian Human Rights Commission have put together extensive amounts of literature that describe their interpretation of the Act, including standards and guidelines detailing the rights and responsibilities about equality for people who bear a disability of any sort.

The standards and guidelines also include information about the legal requirements around workplace accessibility and employment opportunity for people with a disability.

It goes without saying that HR managers need to be aware of these requirements and stay up to date with any changes or updates in legislation or guidance on this sensitive and important matter.

Cookie cutter mentalities prevent diversity inclusion

In order to gather some insight on the topic of how to foster work cultures that cater for people with disabilities, we reached out to Cheryl Gledhill, founder and product manager of JobMatcher, a startup that uses artificial intelligence to help organisations attract a more diverse and inclusive talent pool.

Gledhill explained that creating a disability-friendly workplace culture ultimately comes down to the HR manager’s awareness about the different types of disabilities and how to address them.

“HR managers can sometimes take a one-size-fits-all approach to workplace cultures,” said Gledhill.

“For some reason, they believe that the things like Friday team lunches and ping pong tournaments are perks that are for everyone.

“The reality is, that there are some people, including many who are neurodivergent, who don’t like those activities.”

According to Gledhill, the neurodivergent (meaning, people whose neurological development is atypical) need ‘sensory safe places’ where they can go to ‘decompress and recharge’.

“An open plan office can be a nightmare for someone who has sensory issues, something which a lot of people on the autism spectrum have to face.

“In order to make your workplace disability-friendly, it is really important to be aware of everyone’s individual needs, rather than making generalised assumptions.”

In order to be truly aware of various disabilities and how they manifest, Gledhill suggested that HR managers “research the different conditions” that employees might have and “create spaces for them too”.

“I was recently chatting about job perks with a girl who told me that she was on the Autism spectrum.

“During our discussion, she mentioned that if she found an organisation that was hiring and offered their employees access to a sensory room, she’d apply to work there immediately.

“Show your employees that you care by going out of your way to a place where everyone can feel comfortable.”

Don’t let the cost scare you away

Another person who we chatted to about diversity inclusion was Peter Horsley, founder of an inclusive technology accelerator called Remarkable – one of the incredible offerings of the Cerebral Palsy Alliance.

The cost associated with going out of one’s way to make workplaces disability-friendly can be quite prohibitive, and according to Horsley, that expense can deter employers from making it a focus.

“Employers get scared that the cost of making adaptations is going to be too expensive,” Horsley explains, “and because of the cost, they either avoid hiring people who may have additional accessibility needs, or they think that an accessible bathroom and a ramp are enough.” 

What many employers or HR managers might not know, is that there is a government agency called Job Access that focuses on making employment more accessible for those who live with a disability. They even offer funding to help cover what they refer to as ‘reasonable adjustments’ that are required to help make a workplace more disability friendly.

Job Access also offers cash incentives for businesses who offer employment to people with disabilities, covering a significant portion of their salary.

Horsley strongly encourages employers to make use of those funds, as they can significantly impact a company’s ability to be more inclusive.

In addition to the funds, Job Access also offers extensive resources that employers and HR managers can use to ensure that they are tailoring their workplace culture to appropriately  cater for those with disabilities.

Knowing how to approach the conversation

Employees are only required to disclose a disability if it affects their ability to perform their job adequately, or their ability to work safely with others.

There are many different types of disabilities that don’t need to be disclosed as they don’t meet the above criteria. But it is quite common for an employee to disclose a disability to their employer or manager purely as a courtesy.

One of the key parts of the employer or manager’s role is knowing how to respond to such a disclosure.

Sensitivity is key to the response. The rule of thumb when it comes to conversations about disabilities is that managers should never ask the employee a question that they wouldn’t ask anyone else.

For example, asking an employee who has disclosed their disability to you if they need any changes to be made in the workplace in order for them to do their job, is totally fine. On the other hand, asking the same employee what medication they take, how they came to receive their disability, or if they have the capacity to perform their job, is absolutely inappropriate.

Of course, it goes without saying that everything relating to the person’s discussion with you needs to remain completely confidential and can only be passed on to others if the manager has written consent by the said employee to do so.

The makings of a truly inclusive workplace

While there are endless amounts of ways to improve workplace inclusion, Job Access highlights the core requirements that HR managers need to fulfil in order to ensure that they are maintaining the highest standards of workplace inclusion. Here are some of the key requirements:

  • Create an internal committee of managers and employees who are devoted to promoting diversity inclusion in the workplace.
  • Celebrate key dates that raise awareness for people with disabilities ­– like International Day for People with Disability (on 3 December every year).
  • Develop a tailored disability employment support plan that addresses the individual needs of people with a disability in the workplace.
  • Ensure that the workplace evacuation plan includes specific instructions for employees with a disability.
  • Create policies that promote flexible working arrangements so an employee with a disability can opt to work from a place of their choice.

This is all just the tip of the iceberg. If you are an HR manager who is looking to learn everything there is to know about creating an inclusive workplace environment of the highest calibre, there’s enough content on the Human Rights Commission and Job Access websites to keep you busy for a while.

Leveraging the latest tech to drive workplace inclusion

Technology has been an absolute game changer for diversity inclusive workplaces and HR managers have been utilising some of the latest tech solutions to take their workplace inclusion strategies to the next level.

“Technology has been an incredible enabler of people to work, communicate and thrive in workplaces,” Horsley explained.

Horsley singled out tech tools like ‘speech to text, screen readers, video conferencing with real-time captioning’, as well as solutions that ‘allow someone the flexibility to work from home where they can receive all the support they need to do their job’.

According to Gledhill, the use of video conferencing tech in order to support those with a neurodivergent disability is particularly helpful.

“The ability to work remotely and attend all meetings through video conferencing has changed the face of workplace inclusiveness as it allows people to work from somewhere that is comfortable and accommodating for them, while still allowing for ‘face to face’ communication.”

Diligent HR managers should be keeping their finger on the pulse of technology advancements that can help employees with a disability,

Diversity inclusion opens a large door of possibility

Aside from the importance of promoting and enforcing equal rights in the workplace, there are other side benefits to making it as easy as possible for someone with a disability to work at your company.

Some of the brightest, most capable and talented people in history had disabilities. Albert Einstein is believed to have been on the Autism spectrum, Beethoven was deaf, Franklin D Roosevelt and Stephen Hawking used wheelchairs – but that didn’t stop them from achieving some of the greatest accomplishments the world has ever seen.

By creating a workplace that gives people with a disability the comfort and confidence to join your ranks, your business is allowing itself to attract some of the world’s most talented people.

All it takes is just a little bit of open-mindedness, and the opportunities start to pour in.

Recruitment is one of the fundamental pillars of business because it’s the people and culture of an organisation that determine what it achieves and how it operates. By taking an approach of genuine diversity inclusion, it is without question that a sense of friendship, thoughtfulness and responsibility will be felt in all other facets of the business.

The bottom line

Creating environments that allow for people to feel comfortable with who they are, and that encourage them to embrace the life that they’ve be given, has benefits that can significantly impact those individual’s quality of life.

On the other hand, by taking a one-dimensional approach to recruitment and to workplace diversity, and by being afraid to make the necessary adjustments in order to accommodate those who have additional needs, the quality of life for those impacted can plummet.

When we make people feel like they belong, regardless of their abilities, background, culture, gender or faith, we are making the world a better place for everyone to live in.