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HR's Guide to Disability in the Workplace

Tips on how to make your workplace more accessible, both literally and figuratively.

Nikhil Bendre

by Nikhil Bendre - January 20th, 2022

When you decide to take on a career in HR, you decide to take on a career focused on people. This entails supporting them, working with them, and constantly striving to provide the best employee experience possible. In other words, remember the ‘human’ aspect of human resources!

That being said, to what extent do you need to go in order to adequately fulfill your obligations to each and every one of your team members? It’s important to keep in mind that people come from all walks of life, including different privileges or the lack thereof.

People with disabilities, regardless of their nature, are subjected to an array of harmful, exclusionary, and incorrect perceptions. Consider this stat from Joshin: While 90% of companies have a plan for diversity, only 4% of those businesses include disability within these plans.

As HR professionals, it’s up to you to make your workplace a safe, inclusive space with no room for any of those offensive preconceived notions. Therefore, let’s take a look at how you can effectively and sensitively navigate working with employees of varying abilities.

The first foundational point to emphasize is that the second assumptions are made about any particular employee with a disability, you’ve failed them. It’s imperative to never underestimate someone’s capabilities, regardless of their background. Candidates and employees with disabilities should be presented with all of the same opportunities as their fully able-bodied counterparts. The creativity lies in working out ways to make those opportunities fully accessible to anyone who is qualified. In addition to providing equal opportunity, the real key is ensuring equitable opportunity. Here are some ways to go about this within the frame of some commonly known disabilities.

Non-Hidden Disabilities

Non-hidden disabilities include those that are physically visible. To do your part, there are implementations you can add to your office space to make it as accessible as possible. Here are some ways to consider.

  • Include ramps. You’d think this is incredibly obvious, but it’s truly saddening how many places, especially offices, don’t have ramps to simply enter the building. You have to think about the potential talent that you could be missing out on simply due to lack of accessibility. You’ll never know the extent of this loss if some candidates can’t even easily enter the building!

  • Remove unnecessary obstacles. Being able to easily and freely move about the office space is just as important as the previous issue of getting in. Consider implementing more of an open floor plan and eliminating unnecessary obstacles, such as stairs on the same floor, or build in accessible alternate ways around these obstacles, such as elevators and ramps.

  • Take advantage of accessible technology. Implementing tools such as automatic doors and adjustable desks is a great way to make your office space more accessible. The goal here is to make sure each employee can access any place or thing within the office without a problem. Therefore, automating commonly used spaces and ensuring that everyday equipment is adjustable to whoever may need it should be a top priority. Having a fully digital HRIS is another form of accessible technology that encourages and empowers all employees to manage and view their employment data at the click of a button. 

Hidden Disabilities

Oftentimes, when people hear the word disability, they picture someone with a clearly observable physical disability. Non-visible disabilities deserve the same respect and acknowledgement as those that can be seen. These types of disabilities include loss of hearing, chronic illnesses, cancers, HIV/AIDS, and other things of that nature. However, they also include mental disabilities, such as depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and more. It’s important to remember there is no single picture of what disability looks like. It varies from person to person, and grouping all disabilities under one imagined image is, frankly, ignorant and presumptuous. Everyone’s story is different, and in HR, it’s our responsibility to learn those stories and support our teams accordingly.

Keep in mind that people with visible disabilities could also be fighting battles you can’t see, such as those with any of the previously mentioned hidden disabilities. In general, it’s important that any conversations that take place on the topic are fully on your employee’s terms. The priority is that they feel comfortable and free of any judgement.

On the topic of respecting your employees with disabilities, there is another component that is beyond important - privacy. Matters like these are incredibly personal and some discussions may occur between the employee and management that are meant to be confidential. You must absolutely respect that confidentiality and reassure your team members that sensitive information will stay under wraps. That trust will be the base for any professional relationship moving forward!

How an HRIS Can Help Support Employees with Disabilities

Your HR software is a direct extension of your HR department, and it can be a great tool in improving support quality for employees with disabilities. With workflow automation software like GoCo, HR professionals can:

  • Transform ADA Reasonable Accommodation checklists into custom, digital workflows to ensure consistency and compliance. From identifying the need for accommodation, to obtaining medical information (if necessary) HR can guarantee that every step is completed and track progress on the workflow.

  • Retain reasonable accommodation documentation. If needs for accommodation are identified, HR can digitally document and store documentation directly in the HRIS instead of manually filing.

  • Streamline special equipment requests. If your employees require specific equipment to support their needs, HR pros can easily incorporate special equipment requests into their digital equipment provisioning workflow. Build your custom requests workflow, assign tasks to different departments (like IT) to help obtain necessary information, and track request progress to make sure your employees are getting what they need when they need it.

Navigating disabilities in the workplace doesn’t need to be a complicated task. The basis of your approach should be compassion! Just ask yourself what your team needs and the measures to take will follow. If you keep empathy and respect at the forefront of your efforts, you’ll be well on your way to creating the most accessible professional space possible!

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