Hiring Differently Abled Employees

Understanding the correct terminology and creating a path to success

As Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs become popular at more companies and DEI becomes a sort of buzzword in human resources, there has been an uptick in articles and videos about companies that are making a concentrated effort to employ people that many would call “disabled” or “differently abled.” The employees may be dealing with physical or emotional challenges; they could be deaf or blind, non-verbal, or dealing with autism, ADHD, or other mental or physical issues. Some disabled workers may also be dealing with invisible disabilities like chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, or anxiety.

The companies that have committed to this type of hiring have worked to create welcoming and supportive environments for people with disabilities and have found their workplaces, spectrum of employee options, and bottom lines are better for doing so. Enlarging the pool of people a company can employ and considers employable makes good sense these days, but there are some things to consider when figuring out how to make people with physical or mental challenges comfortable and productive.

It’s all in a name: Terminology

One of the first things that may need revision is how people who have traditionally been referred to as “physically or mentally challenged,” “differently abled,” or “handicapped” are discussed. Let’s take the term “differently abled,” for instance. According to research, the phrase was created by the U.S. Democratic National Committee as an alternative to handicapped. The motivation behind the creation of the phrase was to eliminate the stigma that the word handicapped sometimes imposed. What it did instead, in the opinion of some, was to disguise the difficulties experienced by people who have serious physical or mental handicaps. Well-meaning in practice but not so great in execution.

Still, most people want to refer to others respectfully and correctly, so when you’re discussing people with physical or mental challenges (which, by the way, also isn’t a great way to put things), what do you say instead? The first way to handle that question is simply to ask the person who is disabled what terms they prefer. Many may prefer “disabled” or “person with disabilities.” Also, try to refer to the person first and the disability second. This sort of approach would lead you to say, “person who uses a wheelchair” vs. “wheelchair user.” The first phrase emphasizes the person, while the second focuses on that person’s mode of movement.

Another thing to be aware of is occasions when you may be referencing the disability of a person or group when it isn’t warranted. Talking about accessibility when you’re planning a meeting or conference makes sense, as you want to make it easy for everyone to attend. Saying the dyslexics will need an audio version of the instructions for this machine does not make sense. Instead, say, “We need to make sure these instructions are accessible for all employees,” which is much more inclusive and doesn’t single out any one group.

Also, avoid any discussion or portrayal on a website, company video, etc. that describes employees with disabilities as inspirational or courageous. Some people call this “inspiration porn.” This is a form of propaganda that implies that living with a disability is so terrible that simply getting through the day/living a normal life is inspirational. Keep in mind that disabled people are simply people — albeit ones with a disability — and are not living in the world to provide a “there but for the grace of God go I” moment or a daily hit of inspiration for the rest of us. Those with disabilities simply want to be accepted as themselves, not as living motivational posters.

You can accommodate people with disabilities — ask them how

The main goal of any DEI program should be to make everyone feel a part of the workplace and comfortable within that space. The best way to do that is to ask people what they need to do their work in the most efficient way possible and how you can help them perform at their highest level. Don’t assume you know how people want to be referred to, and don’t assume you know what they need.

Someone who is disabled has had far more experience in navigating the world and living with their disability than you have. Instead of assuming they need special treatment or implementing expensive accommodations that the employee may not want or need, simply ask them what will work for them and then implement those things.

Also, make sure that accommodations for those with disabilities aren’t promoted excessively, as though your company has gone to great lengths or done a great thing. Providing a translator for Jane in Shipping, who’s deaf and speaks only using American Sign Language, should be considered the same as getting a chair with lumbar support for John in Accounting, who has a bad back.

Accommodations should be treated simply as ways to help each employee provide their peak performance and be comfortable and happy while they’re doing it. Companies that try to capitalize on their willingness to accommodate, or who use disabled employees as “inspiration porn” are using those employees as symbols and doing a disservice both to the employee and to the company.

It’s not just fashionable; it’s good business

Another current trend among companies is the rise of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs. While these programs have a lot of benefits, they are often much more oriented toward race or gender than they are toward disability. If your company has a DEI program, make sure that it deals with disability as much as other forms of diversity. Whether your company has a DEI program or not, it should be communicated from the top down that all people, including those with disabilities, are valued and welcomed in your organization.

Make sure this is communicated on your website, on your social media profiles, and particularly in any job openings that are posted. You should have a plan to hire and retain employees with disabilities and make an effort to find vendors who do the same. Make sure your commitment to supporting disabled workers is one of practice as well as theory. This initiative needs to be more than some politically correct or fashionable statement made to seem in sync with the times.

Employing people with disabilities can be a huge benefit for any company for several reasons. First, studies have shown that people with disabilities have a higher retention rate and tend to be very reliable. You may also find that disabled people are looking for long-term job stability and are more likely to want to stay with a company. Another benefit of having disabled people in your employee pool is the fact that there are tax credits and other incentives for hiring employees of this type. While those credits or incentives should not be a primary motivating factor for implementing a hiring program, they can be an added bonus.

Your company may also derive social benefits from having a diverse workforce that includes the disabled. People with disabilities may have excellent problem-solving abilities as they’ve been dealing with challenges and figuring out how to solve them in their own lives. They may also have extraordinary tenacity for the same reason.

Having disabled people on staff may also open you to new markets, as people with specific disabilities can give you insight into market segments you otherwise would not have been able to penetrate. Employing a diverse group of people also allows your workforce to learn how to practice compassion and collaborate, which may result in a kinder workplace and more productivity overall.

Finally, don’t forget that not all disabilities can be seen or easily perceived. People with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are also considered disabled, as are people with chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and other physical issues which may have no outward symptoms. People with hidden disabilities may be reluctant to disclose any issues they may deal with because of cultural conditioning or stigma. In those cases, having an open and accepting corporate culture may ease the way.

If your company aspires to employ the widest range of people possible, the best way to accomplish that goal is to be ready to accommodate the needs of all employees and to be open and receptive when they ask for accommodation. Don’t make assumptions about what an employee needs, and don’t make assumptions about their level of performance or their capabilities.

In the end, the thing a company needs most if it is going to successfully employ disabled people is the willingness to try, to think outside the box about what a good employee looks like or how they work, and the ability to listen. The average employee wants to be successful in their job and to produce and add to the bottom line of the company that employs them. Disabled employees are no different. While they may need help and accommodation to accomplish those goals, the benefits are well worth any necessary cost and time.


Kristine Shreve

Kristine is the founder and CEO of Kristine Shreve Consulting which offers writing, marketing and business development services. Kristine is also the creator and host of the Business + Women podcast, where the discussion centers around being a woman business owner. She blogs on her webiste, as well as readingandranting.com and whenimthin.com. On Facebook, Kristine is the founder of the Women in Garment Decoration Facebook group. Kristine was the director of marketing for Ensign Emblem and EnMart from 2006 to April 2020.

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