Retaining employees with disabilities

Two gearwheels turning with each other. One gearwheel is named Recruit, the other Retain.

The final part of the “employing people with disabilities” puzzle is creating an environment that supports their success

Final part of a three-part article. Read part one (on recruiting) and part two (on policies)

Attracting candidates with disabilities and having supportive policies solves just two legs of the complete “increasing representation of employees with disabilities” three-legged stool puzzle.

All three legs (recruiting, policies, retention) must exist for the increased disability representation effort to achieve success

Here are some thoughts on the third leg, how to improve the experience of an employee / eligible contractor with a disability to make their experience as optimal as possible which will hopefully lead to improved retention. Reasonable accommodations and training for team members were discussed in the policy section in part two of this article.

1. Easy access to public transportation

An organization can’t hire or keep many people with disabilities (especially those with vision loss, some neurological issues, and brittle diabetes) without easy access to public transportation. Many people with disabilities either don’t or can’t drive. Some may want to, but can’t afford the $3,000 to retrofit their ancient car with hand controls or $60K and up for a fully accessible roll-in van. That makes easy access to public transportation a necessity, not just desirable, for many employees with disabilities. I’m personally counting the days until everyone has access to self-driving cars.

2. Physical Accessibility

Once someone with a disability gets a job, they have to be able to get into the office and do their job. Lack of understanding (at best) and intentional corner cutting or willful ignorance (at worst) related to physical accessibility means that an organization may be more focused on looking good (i.e. being seen to be recruiting employees with disabilities) than they are at being good (i.e. doing the hard work necessary to make those employees with disabilities successful and want to stay)

When an organization only is interested in looking good rather than actually being good, this behavior is known as “disability optics”

Employees with disabilities should not be forced to request physical access audits, accessible bathrooms, alternative door opening options, or non-discriminatory evacuation plans. These things should automatically be part of every organization. Organizations, especially large ones should:

  • have an up-to-date physical access audit for ALL campuses, not just the ones in countries that require accessibility;
  • be working down a punch list of accessibility requests;
  • be working towards physically accessible facilities in countries that don’t require accessibility. North American employees with disabilities need equal access to overseas facilities. I have been blocked from more than one overseas business trip because facilities in developing nations were not wheelchair accessible. It probably goes without saying, this is a very frustrating experience.
  • have an easy-to-engage process for when problems come up. And believe me, problems come up even in the most accessible facilities.

An essential component of employee inclusion is making your events accessible. Ask yourself the question at every single corporate-sponsored event “can everyone participate equally?” Just a few of the type of issues that can prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in events include:

  • Events on grass
  • A standing desk / walking meeting managerial philosophy
  • Inaccessible furniture, conference rooms, and stages
  • Inaccessible food/buffet lines
  • Service animal unfriendly events
  • Inaccessible slide decks or handouts, presentations with audience activities

3. Digital Accessibility

What is true for physical accessibility should also be true for digital accessibility. It is difficult for organizations to claim they are inclusive when they regularly buy software that does not operate with most forms of assistive technology. Procurement should consider whether or not software and services under consideration meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines.

The next surge in accessibility lawsuits will be employees suing employers over discrimination due in part to acquisition of inaccessible software.

If you can’t get a job, keep a job, obtain a transfer, or be promoted due to inaccessible software, you likely have been discriminated against due to your disability

We are already seeing these cases come through today, and the few that have gone completely through the trial system have not surprisingly been decided in favor of the employee with a disability. Which is going to lead to more of them being filed. Don’t wait for the million-dollar judgment to come down against your organization which in addition to the financial cost, will tarnish your organization’s public reputation.

As with physical access, don’t make employees with disabilities ask for accessible software. It makes us feel like you aren’t interested in our voice, and is the de facto definition of an disability optics organizational focus.

4. Sensory-friendly rooms

A recent Stack Overflow survey showed the following self-identification rates among 90,000 global people in tech:

  • Mood or emotional disorder (e.g. depression, bipolar disorder) 8.8%
  • Anxiety disorder 8.6%
  • Concentration and/or memory disorder (e.g. ADHD) 6.4%
  • Autism / an autism spectrum disorder (e.g. Asperger’s) 2.6%

Any of these individuals would occasionally benefit from being able to go into a sensory friendly room — one with non-fluorescent lights, where people could shelter themselves from distracting noise/movement. Bonus points if at least one of the rooms is chemical / animal free for people with severe environmental allergies and/or disabilities.

5. Disability-specific benefits

By their nature, people with disabilities are just going to use more of certain types of benefits, including the following:

  • EAP Programs
  • Life insurance that does NOT require a physical
  • Flex-time/Job sharing(related to but not exactly the same as WFH)
  • Disability insurance without pre-existing condition exclusions
  • Retirement planning

Making these benefits available will disproportionately assist your employees with disabilities. Choosing vendors with accessible web interfaces and with case managers who help employees with disabilities wade through their more complicated issues also help.

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