Dr. Linda Mona, a Clinical Psychologist and disability, diversity and inclusion strategist, recently spoke with Alignment Strategies’ founder and CEO Dr. Vanessa Weaver about why people with disabilities represent such a small percentage of the workforce, why some are hesitant to disclose their disability at work, how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted their work experience and what companies can do to be more inclusive. The following is an edited excerpt from their conversation.
Dr. Vanessa J. Weaver: A study we looked at showed that of the 90 percent of companies that express a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, only 4 percent of them actually have a program focused on people with disabilities. Why is that?
Dr. Linda Mona: We know that over the last 15 to 20 years, we’ve only seen rates of employment of people with disabilities that range from 17 to 22 percent. So even at that highest level of 22 percent of people working, we fly under the radar in some ways.
Also, we haven’t really been seen as a diverse group. We have to work first on helping people to conceptualize disability outside of medical notions, to look at the complexity of the experience, the oppression, institutional bias, attitudes about disability. Look at all of those things, change that definition and then every single process that changes with hiring, onboarding, asking about accommodations, those things are universally threaded through every part of the work process. When that happens, it will quickly identify people and they will say, “Oh, they thought about it. They actually thought about who I am in the world. Maybe that really means they want me, and they value me.”
That’s so important psychologically. As we start to think about legacy planning and bringing people in, it is the ideal message. And for people who might be a little uncomfortable with coming out right away around disability, they know that the employer has set up a forum in which to have that conversation and they can test the waters out and go back and have that conversation later.
Weaver: I appreciate you talking about that whole notion of coming out. In our firm, Alignment Strategies, we’ve worked with companies to set up employee resource groups, and there have been two particular cohorts that have been most challenging for us to make them more comfortable in establishing these employee resource groups. One is LGBTQ and the second has been people with disabilities.
Mona: When we’ve looked at the way that definitions of diversity have expanded over the years, it was people of color, ethnicity, and race and gender. We went through the long list that we usually list when we talk about it and then we saw LGBT folks added on. And then after that, we saw disability. The LGBT community has been instrumental with helping bring disability in, because, if you think about it, we’re two groups that are different from the other groups that we hear about. We don’t necessarily have people in our families like us, so that cultural tradition is not handed down in the same way as we might see with race, ethnicity and gender. There aren’t a lot of incentives to positively identify as somebody with a disability.
Weaver: A Mercer study showed a six to 13 percent difference in the level of engagement of people with disabilities in the workforce. We define engagement as the willingness of a workforce colleague to engage in discretionary effort. We know when there’s a gap of five points that’s pretty significant and one that we tell companies you need to really focus on because we do know when people are more engaged, they’re more productive, they’re more innovative, you have lower absenteeism rates, you have lower safety issues, you have higher morale, better customer connections. So engagement matters, yet the data shows that companies who aren’t really focused on this with people with disabilities are losing out.
Mona: I think a few things could be happening, one of which is somebody doesn’t have the right accommodations and so they’re struggling just to show up, to be at work, to do what they’re supposed to do.
I also think it’s about recognizing who those people are. If somebody is going to have a resource group, that it’s put out there. Even if two people are there, let the people know that that’s your priority to learn more and to know more. I think people are afraid to talk about disability or they don’t know how to do it and so instead of doing it, they don’t say anything at all.
Weaver: I feel that COVID has been a great equalizer in this whole disability conversation, particularly around accommodations, because one of the big arguments was that accommodations have a cost to the organization, and it limits how much people can connect or it hurts the bottom line. And then we get COVID and COVID showed us that people are very productive when they work from home. I think it dispelled that whole bias around accommodations. What’s been your experience with that?
Mona: This whole global pandemic has hit the disability community in a multitude of ways. Sadly, issues around devaluing of lives of people with disabilities, healthcare rationing, not thinking somebody has a quality of life, not giving them a respirator because it’s seen that they’re not as valuable as somebody else. So there’s been this really heartfelt sadness in the community.
The other side of this, there’s this bittersweet notion. We [people with disabilities] have been telling non-disabled people all along that flexible work schedules and working from home, having less environmental barriers, it’s easier to have your personal assistant service, caregivers, whatever you want to call the people who assist you with facilitating your life, all in the workplace. We’ve been telling you this and then like within five days everyone is saying we’re going to do all this telework now. It has affected us in a great way because it will now give more access to people to have either a hybrid work style or a complete telework work life, which is a win-win.
Weaver: Can you give three points to organizations or companies around what they can do to be more inclusive with people with disabilities?
Mona: Actively look to increase your knowledge and skills and abilities around disability. Look at best practices. Think what might make sense with your own company so that you can really make it a priority. Don’t put it as number 32 on your to-do list.
Act with intention and make some changes and realize that you need to set a foundation and infrastructure to bring in people with disabilities onto your team and into your organization.
The third thing that I would say is, we all make mistakes. I would really like for people to create a safety net, to know that part of making change is allowing yourself to try things out. It’s better to say a word and maybe say it in a non-preferred way than not say it at all, because then you have the opportunity to repair. If you don’t say it and you don’t act with it, then you never know what you might be missing out on.