Around 48.9 million people in the United State have a disability yet just 17.5% of people with disabilities are employed. Many disabled people are qualified but are unable to find appropriate employment or a work environment they can work in whilst protecting their health. The last year has given us the chance to experiment with different approaches to the working environment.

Telework and working from home have become a regular choice for many employees and the adoption of new technologies has become essential for many businesses to remain afloat. In battling Coronavirus, the workplace has had to become more agile, adopt teleworking practices which has created unexpected opportunities for a more disability-friendly and inclusive work environment.

Coronavirus: A Catalyst to Flexible Working

By utilizing electronic devices, telephone systems and the internet, employees are able to work from home and complete their roles as if in the office. Telework can save businesses up to $10,000 a year if employees work from home just half of the time and it is a great way of opening up the workplace to people who may not be able to access a regular workplace for many different reasons.

The Coronavirus pandemic has necessitated homeworking and it has resulted in a shift in the understanding of flexible working and how it is more than plausible for it to become the norm. People working from home as well as commuting can utilize the wealth of technology available, which is a step closer to a more inclusive work environment for all. The disability employment gap is stark, therefore normalizing flexible approaches to work should be considered essential in minimizing this gap.

Understanding Disability

Understanding what constitutes disability is the first step in being more inclusive in your hiring practices and positioning your business as disability diverse and friendly. The most basic understanding of disability requires some physical difference, but this is far from the case. A study by The Center for Talent Innovation found 30% of their respondents (white-collar, college-educated employees) had a disability and from this percentage, 62% actually have an invisible disability.

Many employees do not disclose their disabilities at all through fear of discrimination or not being offered a job at all. While this is illegal, it does happen in many instances so it is important, as an employer, you encourage people from all backgrounds and experiences to be open about themselves. The right employee is the right employee regardless of any disabilities or health concerns they may have, and you should be willing and proactive in making any adaptations they may need to ensure they can carry out the job to the best of the ability you spotted at the interview.

Untapped, Uniquely Skilled Workforce

The US workforce could be hugely enriched by the millions of disabled people who want to work but are unable to in a regular office or work environment. Remote work and the latest communication technologies help to make the workplace more accessible for employees with a wide range of disabilities. Many of these people have untapped skills, talents and experiences which can enrich your business and the workplace in general.

Research carried out by the Society of Human Resource Management Foundation found 82% of businesses are already adopting broader, more flexible home working policies for all employees and this could open doors up to a wider sector of society who may have found work difficult to access previously. AskEARN.org is a reliable resource for finding companies who have forged success in disability diversity in the workplace, with companies such as Microsoft, Starbucks and PepsiCo standing out as examples of companies committed to disability inclusion.

Organizations need to do more to make their workplaces inclusive and the huge surge in homeworking and the tools needed to push it forward could be instrumental in delivering higher rates of inclusivity and giving talented disabled people a chance to enhance their career prospects and find valuable employment related to their qualifications and skills.

Leveraging Platforms for Inclusivity at Work

Many of the new technologies and approaches to the workplace which have become normal due to the Coronavirus pandemic are the perfect fit if you’re looking to create and encourage more disability diversity at work. Conferencing technologies and a flexible approach to working hours, including staggering and homeworking, are exactly the kinds of adaptation many disabled workers have been looking for.

Offering more flexible schedules, remote work opportunities and expanding in teleworking, even in specific fields such as telemedicine, can be a way of encouraging a more diverse workforce. Many disabled people, campaigners and charities have been fighting for changes such as those put in place due to the pandemic for decades, but with little success.

The shift in the last twelve months has seen able-bodied employees also seeing the benefits of a flexible approach to their work, with IBM research finding 54% of Americans want to keep remote work as their primary option while 70% would like the flexibility of choice. It’s a sad fact that now these demands have become mainstream, they are more likely to be listened to, but it doesn’t mean disabled employees cannot benefit from any changes too.

Any business looking to further increase inclusivity in their workplace and support inclusion should consider the following key points:

Listen to Disabled People

Listen to your employees with disabilities as individuals and take into account their individual needs. There is not a coverall approach that will work for all, so be sure that your changes and adaptations are actually suitable for your workforce.

Check your Diversity and inclusion Strategies

There are laws and regulations to protect disabled employees and equal opportunities, but you can also put your own additional practices in place. Consider your company’s diversity and inclusion strategies and if you want to go further than guidelines laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) then look at ways to improve.

Diversity Inclusion First

Build diversity and disability inclusion into every stage of your business. You can build diversity into all systems, procedures and policies, ensuring remote meeting technologies and software supports all employees, not just those who rely on audio and visual elements combined. Ensure assistive technologies are appropriate and understood by all, not just the employees who may be using them.

Provide Tech that Works

Conferencing tools, high-speed internet and VoIP are becoming essentials for homeworking, as well as in the office so ensure all employees are properly equipped. With the right tech, adapted as necessary, your employees can flourish. VoIP’s ability to converge voice, video and data in a single application is ideal for streamlining business practices. However, it is also highly versatile and many VoIP service providers are working to be as accessible as possible and go beyond audio limitations. Video communications are also ideal for those who rely on visual cues, sign languages and similar for work purposes.

Harnessing communication technology effectively is one of the most important ways of ensuring you have the tools available to support any disabled employees within your business. People communicate in many ways beyond simple words and grasping this is key to creating an inclusive workplace. Some individuals may use sign language, whereas others may need AAC communication technologies or other specialist equipment to communicate effectively.

The rise in the use of video technology in every area of life, from social networking to important work meetings, interviews and even courtrooms, has made communication easier for millions. However, controversy over captioning on Instagram and other platforms is evidence that more can always be done to make every platform as accessible as possible.

Becoming a Disability-Inclusive Employer

With the growth of remote work, the focus no longer needs to be solely on creating a disability-friendly workplace, it can be more far-reaching and focus on the company’s ethos being focused on equality and equal opportunities for all. Creating a disabled-friendly work culture requires:

  1.     Awareness and Training Investment

Disability awareness is something many employers are ignorant of. As already mentioned, many people don’t even disclose their disability and many able-bodied people aren’t aware of disabilities which don’t include some visible symptom such as wheelchair use or limb difference. Training and awareness is key for an enlightened and positive workplace, committed to supporting employees with disabilities.

  1.     Embrace Assistive Technology

The newest technologies created for streamlining remote work can be used effectively for supporting workers with additional needs. Many of the newest technologies are designed with accessibility in mind. The right assistive technology, software and online tools can help ensure employees are able to carry out their duties without any issues or limitations.

The most common assistive technologies include equipment such as Braille displays, voice-operated and speech recognition software, color-coded keyboards, and sign language apps. Many conferencing tools and VoIP systems are designed with accessible features and functions, so all users can access their full functionality with ease. Remember, investing in technology is stage one, you must ensure employees are adequately trained in said technology.

  1.     Work with Disability Organizations

Outside agencies can be a great support in helping you create a more inclusive work environment. There are agencies including non-profits and government organizations who can advise and guide you in the right direction for creating a more inclusive workplace. With expertise in the field, they can help find the right solutions for your employees and make recommendations on technologies, rota planning and strategies for managing remote teams, ensuring you have the right setup in place for success.

  1.     Be a Health-Centered Employer

Employee health and wellbeing should be a core concern for all businesspeople, but it becomes more important when you can’t see your employees on a daily basis or check in, in the traditional way. That being said, you can use the online tools out there, from chat-based software to video calls to check in and ensure your employees are satisfied in their roles, feel supported and can come to you with any concerns or issues.

  1.     Be Flexible and Prepared to Fail

Take cues from the people you want to include and don’t assume you know what they want or need. This has been a prevailing problem within workplace inclusion policy, able-bodied employees deciding what is best for a more disability-diverse workplace. This approach sounds wrong and it is wrong, especially if you can either ask your own employees what adaptations would work for them or engage with one of the organizations who specialize in this area as we’ve mentioned already.

The Flexible Modern Workplace: Accessible to All

While there are not many positives to take from the upheaval 2020 has brought us, it has allowed us to review and assess our working environments. Even for the healthiest employee, spending more waking hours in the office than in any other place isn’t ideal, so the advent of a more flexible approach to all workplaces is something we should embrace. This is even more the case when we consider the importance of inclusivity and workplaces which offer equal opportunities to all.

No employer can say they do not have the means to support employees with disabilities. Not only because it doesn’t sit well with our country’s laws, but also because in the last few months most businesses have adapted beyond all recognition to ensure their workers can continue their roles from home or work flexibly to meet their home and health commitments. We cannot make this possible due to a global crisis, and then say it is no longer feasible when it could mean many more talented and experienced disabled people could be working and benefitting our businesses.

Similarly, we have the benefit of forward-thinking, tech-minded entrepreneurs creating more and more sophisticated technologies and software to facilitate effective home working and better accessibility too. We’re fast approaching a world where there is no excuse for exclusivity in the workplace, so taking steps to make change now is the proactive choice to make.