Workplace inclusion: Why employers should proactively talk about disability

Business people with their hands together

By Matt May

Posted on 10-13-2020

During National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we hear a lot about hiring, retaining and centering employees with disabilities in our organizations. To do that, we need to take a closer look at disability. It touches more employees’ lives than many realize.

Diversity in all forms, including disability, makes us a better company. We’re able to hash out tough problems when people who might be excluded by a given approach can help to show a better way forward. It’s easy for us to think about disability simply as a line that is crossed below the typical threshold of a person who is hard of hearing, or legally blind.

The reality is that levels of ability occur on a spectrum. For example, some people lack a sense of taste completely, while others, known as supertasters, have extremely sensitive taste buds. What’s more, all of our abilities are subject to change, not just over our lifetimes, but sometimes even over the course of a day.

While we rightly look to disabled people as the experts in their own lived experiences, when we think of disability as a yes-or-no trait, our minds tend to fixate only on visible disabilities: a blind person walking with a cane, a deaf person signing, someone using a wheelchair. Most of us are aware that invisible disabilities exist, of course, but when we only allow what we see around us to form our perception of what disability is, we tend not to think about them. Many people who experience invisible disabilities may be afraid to speak up in the workplace, because they fear that disclosure will be used against them. Others may think of themselves as “not disabled enough” to seek a change for themselves or their peers.

I have worked nearly all of my career in software accessibility. And yet, for a very long time, I was one of those people.

How I lost — and then found — my way

All my life, I’ve loved learning—but I hated school. When I was engaged in my studies and could direct my learning wherever it would take me, I excelled. But when it was about memorization and assigned readings, for example, I struggled. I followed every detour to keep my mind in gear: In high school, I played two sports, was on the speech team, took three languages, interned at a TV station—and ended up barely making it to graduation. When I tried to apply my skills at flying under the radar in a university environment, it all fell apart. I failed out of my freshman year.

Months later, on my 20th birthday, I was diagnosed with ADHD. At this point, and for much longer afterward, I was convinced that this was my burden to bear. “Take these pills, make to-do lists this way, and you’ll fit in eventually,” I thought to myself. My first jobs lasted a few months at a time. I’d learn some basics, get bored repeating them, make some mistakes (like accidentally leaving cash in the register overnight), and get fired.

Then I discovered web design. I worked my way into a design company with many different clients. I taught myself all kinds of new design languages and tools. (One of them, I remember, was called Adobe Photoshop. Heard of it?) Suddenly, self-directed problem solving was an asset! They even liked my creativity. I got paychecks from the same places for months and even years at a time!

I was working for an online grocery company when a meeting with a disabled customer showed me a new way to apply my skills: Web accessibility. I learned the tools and techniques that were available to make websites and apps more perceivable and more usable to people with disabilities. Later, I helped build some of the technical standards for accessibility that are in common use today.

While I was working on issues related to disability, I was struggling with my own. Reading, a basic requirement for most academic pursuits, was and is hard for me. I learned by doing. Still, I had always thought about myself as an engineer who helped people with disabilities. I was a producer of software accessibility—but never considered myself a consumer. I had this thing I had to deal with 24/7, sure, and it affected all kinds of aspects of my life, from my sleep schedule to my relationships to my career prospects, but was I really “disabled enough” to ask for and receive help?

Building an inclusive workplace

An inclusive organization that only reacts to accessibility requests after they’re made can leave a whole lot of people unsupported. Disability visibility is an important step for organizations, but so is expressing the will to meet employees where they are. That can take many forms, from hardware and software adaptive technologies, to modifications to workspace or collaboration areas, to paid time off for medical interventions and recovery, to flexibility in where and when employees are able to work. Inclusive workplaces require intentionality, and inclusive managers find ways to cater to the strengths of each worker, rather than fit them all into the same box.

From my first day at Adobe, I was up front with my manager about what I needed in order to have the best chance to succeed. I had a good idea of what worked and what didn’t, though that has changed substantially over time. Knowing that I was always able to ask for what I needed—not through legalese, or an HR form, but in collaboration with my boss—freed me to do what I was best at: Working on lots of interesting problems at once and finding patterns that might help improve our processes overall.

A lot of career paths are pretty well-defined: Someone may start as a product manager, grow their team, become a senior product manager, then maybe a director, and so on. A senior engineer might become an engineering manager and lead a team of more junior engineers or choose instead to be a principal engineer and lead as an individual contributor, rather than a people manager. That’s not how it worked out for me. Throughout my career at Adobe, I took the long way around: I started as an engineer, then an engineering lead, an evangelist, a program manager, and now I’m a product manager in design. One more job title, and I can turn in my punch card for a free latte!

In a lot of other places, I might have been frustrated because my interests spilled over into another part of the process, and that if I couldn’t just keep writing code instead of trying to teach other engineers, well, maybe I was just a bad fit for the job. Here, I’ve been able to think creatively not just about building more inclusive products, but also about the tools I need and even the role that I play to bring that about. A flexible workplace has not only allowed Adobe to get the most out of me, it’s allowed me to contribute in ways that play to my strengths.

If you’re an employer who wants to learn more about creating an inclusive workplace, the Perkins School for the Blind offers a course for managers and recruiters called “Introduction to Inclusive Talent Acquisition,” along with other resources for employers. Likewise, human resources group SHRM and the nonprofit Disability:IN offer training and resources of their own.

October is also ADHD Awareness Month. Did you know that there are common myths and stereotypes about ADHD? It’s true! Here’s an ADHD Q&A to get started. It’s impossible to know all about every type of human difference. That’s why it’s important for everyone to take the time to learn about how people experience disability—not to mention race, gender, age, culture, religion and more—directly from the people who live it every day.

Topics: Diversity & Inclusion, Responsibility, Brand,