What Does Diversity in the Workplace Look Like?

/ May 4, 2021

By Janet Shouse

When I say the word diversity, what comes to mind? What mental picture jumps into your head?

Does that mental picture include people with disabilities?

Does your notion of diversity include people with intellectual disabilities? People with autism or other developmental disabilities? Those with mental health conditions?

Over the course of the past year or two, I’ve often had the opportunity to be part of meetings that talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some conversations have focused on health care, some on education, and some on employment. However, too often those meetings don’t seem to include disability, unless the meeting is disability-specific.

I don’t want to downplay in any way efforts to encourage diversity regarding race, ethnicity, culture, gender identity or sexual orientation. I think that’s extremely important. And people with disabilities come in all colors, from all ethnicities, all cultures, all types of gender identity and sexual orientation.

While some inroads have been made in education to include students with disabilities in the view of diversity, due primarily to federal law, are there ways we can make similar advances in employment and health care? I believe there are. Today I’m going to focus on employment.

One way I’ve seen to get employers and businesses involved is to have someone in a position of authority at a business who has a loved one with a disability. Many efforts to include people with disabilities have sprung from a parent having a child with a disability who wanted to work.  Some involve huge companies, and some are much smaller private enterprises.

Some businesses try hiring people with disabilities and find that it makes great business sense. A report from 2018 found in an analysis of the Disability Equality Index that “Disability Inclusion Champions” are, compared with other companies in the sample, performing above-average financially. They achieved – on average – 28% higher revenue, double the net income and 30% higher economic profit margins over the four-year period analyzed. See Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage for details.

Disability:In, the creator of the Disability Equality Index, offers businesses a way to show their willingness to hire and value people with disabilities with a yearly rating scale. If you’re looking for an employer that wants to hire those with disabilities, this list can be helpful. If you’re an employer, you may want to check out Disability:In’s website: https://disabilityin.org/. If a company wishes to join Disability: In, the company can be part of Inclusion Works, which provides customized disability inclusion consulting for corporations and help connect them to their peers. See https://disabilityin.org/what-we-do/inclusion-works/

There is also an autism-specific group in Disability: In called Autism @ Work, which allows companies to connect with other employers who focus on hiring people with autism. See https://disabilityin.org/what-we-do/committees/autism-at-work-roundtable/

One step businesses can take to help incorporate diversity is creating “employee resource groups,” and Disability:IN offers information about such groups: https://disabilityin.org/resources/?keyword=Employee+Resource+Groups&sort_by=post_date
A number of Tennessee businesses, including Vanderbilt University Medical Center, have begun developing employee resource groups.

Another good website both for those wanting to be more inclusive and those looking for inclusive employers is the National Organization on Disability, https://www.nod.org/ . There’s a list of businesses as well as information on employers get started in hiring those with disabilities.

One way you as an individual with a disability or as a family member may help make inroads is simply to approach businesses that do the kind of work you or your loved one is interested in doing. Ask if they’d be willing to hire you or your loved one. Employers want workers who enjoy their work, who will be enthusiastic, and who will show up and do a good job. If you love the work you do, you’ll likely match those criteria.

The Job Accommodation Network is a wonderful resource with all kinds of information for both employers and employees about inclusion and accommodations, both very familiar terms to students who’ve received special education services. See https://askjan.org/

Another good resource is the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion. EARN helps employers tap the benefits of disability diversity by educating public- and private-sector organizations on ways to build inclusive workplace cultures. EARN offers information and resources to help individuals and organizations to become leaders in the employment and advancement of people with disabilities. See https://askearn.org/

There’s an excellent report by Accenture on factors that are important for businesses that want to be inclusive of people with disabilities. Their research found eight factors, which were drawn from a global survey of companies across industries of almost 6,000 employees with disabilities, 1,748 executives (of whom 675 have disabilities) and 50 video interviews.

See https://www.accenture.com/us-en/about/inclusion-diversity/persons-with-disabilities.

The eight factors that unlock inclusivity in the workplace, according to their research, are:

  1. Clear role models
  2. Employee resource groups
  3. Parental leave
  4. Fair and transparent pay
  5. Training
  6. Flexible working options
  7. Freedom to innovate
  8. Mental well-being policies

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every business incorporated those factors into their organization and strove for diversity that included people with disabilities?

As many of you know, TennesseeWorks is a statewide partnership of state agencies and disability organizations as well as families and individuals with disabilities who are focused on one goal: to increase the number of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are employed in the state. Together, we are working to implement policy and systems changes that make competitive employment the first and desired choice for every Tennessean.

If you have had success in connecting with a business or employer in hiring people with disabilities, and you’re willing to share how you did this, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. If I get some useful or colorful successful stories, I will share them.

Thank you, as always for reading, and please, if you’re connected with hiring managers, business executives or those in a position to promote such diversity efforts, share this blog post with them. As I mentioned at the start, many people want to increase diversity and be inclusive, but folks with disabilities just don’t come to mind. Help us spread the news to broaden the definition of diversity!

Janet Shouse smilingJanet Shouse is a parent of a young adult with autism, and she is passionate about inclusion, employment of people with disabilities, medical issues related to developmental disabilities, supports and services, public policy, legislative initiatives, advocacy, and the intersection of faith and disability. She wears many hats at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, including one as a disability employment specialist for TennesseeWorks.

May 4, 2021

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