What first comes to mind when you hear the word disability? For many people, it is an image of a wheelchair. But the reality is far more encompassing.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines disability as “a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions.”
Of the 26 million Americans—that’s nearly 1 in 10—found to have a severe disability, only 1.8 million used a wheelchair and 5.2 million used a cane, crutches, or walker, reports the Invisible Disabilities Association using Americans with Disabilities 94-95 survey data. That means that nearly three quarters of Americans living with a severe disability do not rely on traditional mobility aids, and their disabilities may easily be overlooked by the outside observer.
The term invisible disability “refers to symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments,” Invisible Disabilities Association reports. While not always noticeable to others, these disabilities can still limit daily activities—even when the person appears not to be affected. Limitations range from mild to severe and vary between individuals.
Another important factor to note is that, when a person has a disability, that does not mean they are disabled, Invisible Disabilities Association points out. Many people with disabilities live an active life, fully participating in the workplace. Others may be limited to part-time work and still struggle to manage due to chronic fatigue, pain, or other unseen symptoms. Others may be unable to work at all due to their disability.
For those people living with disabilities who are able to work, it is imperative that employers do their part to reasonably accommodate them—including those individuals who don’t “look disabled.” Equally important is for employers to recognize the full potential of people living with visible disabilities. For instance, just because someone’s mobility is limited doesn’t mean that person can’t contribute just as much to the job as any other employee.
In Canada, accommodation is determined on a case-by-case basis and managers play a crucial part in cultivating an inclusive workplace, according to the Government of Canada. These managers have the opportunity—and responsibility—to lead by example in creating a respectful and diverse workplace, free of barriers. This inclusive approach will help ensure managers meet the requirements of the Accessible Canada Act and other regulations and calls to action.
Employers must keep in mind that accommodating people with disabilities is not optional. In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensures protections, with the ADA website declaring, “disabilities are civil rights.”
In Canada, “Canadian human rights law generally recognizes that employees have the right to accommodation of disabilities in the workplace up to the point of ‘undue hardship’ by the employer,” the Canadian Association for Supported Employment reports.
Similarly, in the United States, “the only legal limitation on an employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodation is that the changes or modifications may not cause ‘undue hardship’ to the employer,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. “Undue hardship” typically covers accommodations that could impact the running of the business, or that are unreasonably disruptive, extensive, or expensive.
The Government of Canada lays out five practical steps that managers can take when working to provide reasonable accommodations. First, recognize the need for accommodation and remove discriminatory barriers that are prohibited by law. Second, gather information and assess the employee’s needs. This should include open discussion about barriers and options. Third, make an informed decision by reviewing the employee’s request and consulting the relevant parties while maintaining a solution-oriented mindset. Fourth, implement the decision by communicating the accommodation decision and any recourse options. Lastly, be sure to maintain records and follow up with the employee to ensure the accommodations are working as planned.
Employing people with disabilities can be a win-win for both the employee and the business, according to research by Luisa Alemany and Freek Vermeulen published this year in Disability as a Source of Competitive Advantage in the Harvard Business Review. This concept is in contrast to widespread assumptions that view the issue as a social cause best left to non-profits or public sector organizations. Alemany and Vermeulen point out that businesses tend to focus their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives around gender and ethnicity, overlooking the importance of including people with disabilities when it comes to promoting a diverse workplace.
Failing to include people with disabilities in DEI initiatives is a “missed opportunity,” Alemany and Vermeulen report. Forward-thinking businesses are proving that employing people with disabilities can bring tangible, competitive advantages and profitability over the long run. In other words, including people with disabilities is not only the right thing to do, but also the business-savvy thing to do.
How exactly does employing people with disabilities benefit a business? Alemany’s and Vermeulen’s research suggests the advantages can be seen in four different areas:
First of all, disabilities often come with unique talents that can make people excel at certain jobs. For instance, people on the autism spectrum often do well at tasks requiring attention to detail. Alemany and Vermeulen use Alan Turing as an example. Generally recognized as the founder of computer science, Turing was a gifted mathematician believed to have been on the autism spectrum. He famously helped crack the code produced by the German Enigma machine during WWII and went on to become a pioneer of artificial intelligence.
Alemany and Vermeulen go on to give many other, less well-known examples. For instance, people with physical disabilities are reported to be skilled at diffusing tense emotions and often demonstrate high levels of empathy, so they may be an ideal fit for customer relations positions. People with dyslexia have been found to be particularly skilled in spotting anomalies that other people might miss, making them good candidates for analyzing surveillance data. The list goes on to include many skills associated with certain disabilities that may benefit the workplace.
The second advantage is that employing people with disabilities cultivates an inclusive, collaborative company culture that increases productivity across the board. According to a survey conducted by Alemany and Vermeulen in partnership with the Spanish Association of Supported Employment (AESE), 88 percent of HR professionals surveyed agreed that their company culture had “improved significantly” since hiring employees with disabilities.
The third advantage of hiring people with disabilities is that it boosts a company’s market appeal. Alemany’s and Vermeulen’s experiments on this “clearly indicated” that customers’ willingness to pay for a company’s goods or services was “significantly higher” if they liked the company and felt a “communal relationship” with it. They found that customers were not willing to pay more for goods or services simply because the company employed people with disabilities, but customers were willing to pay more if they had a “psychological bond” with the company. Alemany and Vermeulen found that this bond was “much more likely” to occur if the company openly employed people with disabilities. So, while not a direct correlation, there was “a strong indirect positive effect.”
The fourth advantage is that companies known to employ people with disabilities earn a reputation of being socially responsible, which helps give them a competitive edge. Alemany and Vermeulen point out that this is particularly important considering that capital investments that target ventures with a focus on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues have skyrocketed in recent years. And employee diversity is “an increasingly relevant consideration” when it comes to many ESG investment decisions, with the employment of people with disabilities often meriting specific consideration.
The competitive edge that comes with hiring people with disabilities includes the ability to attract new talent. Alemany’s and Vermeulen’s research showed that employing people with disabilities makes a business “more likely to be seen as an attractive employer” by potential employees who do not have disabilities.
People with disabilities have a wide range of unique talents to bring to the workplace. Businesses across all sectors will enjoy a wealth of advantages by including—and fully accommodating—these too often overlooked employees.