What do you think of when you hear the word disability? If you are an employer, the words compliance, leave management, accommodations or liability—all of which focus on the negative (read: the cost of) employing people with disabilities—may come to mind first. But if you are one of 23 million people of working age who is living with a disability, and you want to find a job, use your talents and have a rewarding career, you are focused on one thing: your abilities.
Can you see the disability mindset gap here? It’s alarmingly wide. People living with a disability—whether it be low vision, cerebral palsy, chronic pain, ADHD, working memory issues or hundreds of other diagnoses—are highly capable employees. The problem is that too many potential employers see or think of their disability first. That inherent bias cuts short opportunities to hire an incredible pool of untapped talent and grow their businesses.
There are several possible reasons for that disconnect. First, Americans have had it drilled into our brains that physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities are linked to liability, even poverty—but not job success. Second, we have an insatiable appetite for stories that objectify people with disabilities making them our heroes and inspiration. Problem is, people with disabilities don’t want to be your job inspiration. They want a job.
The good news is it’s completely possible to bridge the divide. Here are four ways to assess your disability mindset, get your organization in sync and bring a wealth of talent to your organization:
- Listen Up. Are people in your organization in the habit of joking about mental health or learning disabilities? Stop. Thirty percent of people in one survey admitted to making casual jokes about having a learning disorder when someone makes a reading, writing or math mistake. Nearly one-third believe that it is appropriate and lawful for an employer to ask an interviewee if they have a learning disability, which in fact is against the law, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. One employer I interviewed with told me that she had read about people (including me), openly discussing their learning disabilities. She said she thought that was incredibly brave. My response was, and still is, that one of the best reasons to discuss your learning disabilities is to share your strengths and stop stigma. I don’t think of myself as brave, nor do I think of myself as disabled.
- Think About How You React To Mistakes. If you have a common belief that people with attention and learning issues are incapable, then you will never gain their trust. They will go all out to hide the ways they work differently from you and when they make mistakes at work, they will lose a lot of sleep over them. It’s not they think they’re unintelligent or lazy, but they think you do. (It doesn’t help that Betty in accounting texts snide remarks about you to her colleagues every time you hand in an expense sheet that doesn’t add up. Hey, you don’t correct her spelling or grammar! Workplaces that aren’t safe spaces, or in other words, where people stay silent, stifle productivity. In a study of high performing teams, psychological safety was the key factor to group success. Fundamental to psychological safety, according to the study, is the belief that team members won’t be punished for making mistakes.
- Assess How Well You Know Your Employees. You get a round of applause if your human resources department is tracking staff absences, who recently took family medical leave and who participated in your most recent employee wellness program. But do you know what young employees are really anxious about? In the U.S., anxiety, and depression requiring medical treatment are at an all-time high, which means it’s likely that your employees arrive, do their work and leave for home with some feeling of anxiety balled up in their stomach. Jake Melton, author of Minimalize to Maximize Your Happiness: Cut the Crap, who consults with employers on handling mental health issues, suggests starting with one key question: “How can we be a better resource or support to you? Those questions open a door for your organization to act as a supporting resource for your people in a way that is truly meaningful. It demonstrates to them that you care and that you willing to do something about it.” Communicating with employees also helps to bridge the disability mindset gap. With fewer gray areas about expectations and resources, the more you engender trust. When that happens, everyone loosens up and shows their strengths.
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