While the choice to self-identify as a person with a disability is entirely up to the individual, employers are increasingly interested in fostering an environment that encourages self-identification in order to:
- Increase hiring and retention of qualified individuals with disabilities to capitalize on their unique skillset, talents, experiences and perspectives.
- Ensure they are creating and sustaining diverse and inclusive workplaces.
- Achieve compliance with federal regulations requiring affirmative action in disability hiring, such as Sections 501 and 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which cover federal agencies and federal contractors, respectively.
In order to measure their success in meeting each of these objectives, it is critical that employers create an environment in which employees and applicants are comfortable self-identifying, including when a disability may be non-apparent. But research has shown that many individuals with disabilities experience fear about doing so. This fear can be based on previous negative experiences and may include concerns that the employer will:
- Choose not to hire them.
- Focus on their disability rather than actual work performance.
- Limit opportunities for advancement.
- Terminate them.
Strategies for Creating an Environment that Encourages Self-Identification
On a positive note, individuals with disabilities have reported that they are more likely to self-identify if they see their employer making concerted efforts to recruit and hire individuals with disabilities and react positively to other employees’ self-identification. Strategies for fostering such a “disability-inclusive culture” can include the following:
Include disability in your company’s diversity statement
Making sure disability is included in your company’s diversity statement sends a message to current employees, potential employees, and customers that you value disability in the same manner that you value other forms of diversity.
Enhance recruitment efforts to better target and appeal to jobseekers with disabilities
There are a wide range of tactics employers can use to increase the appeal of their organization to jobseekers with disabilities, including:
- Posting positions on online disability-affiliated job boards.
- Partnering with local agencies and service providers who assist jobseekers with disabilities (i.e., state vocational rehabilitation offices, community-based providers and American Job Centers).
- Tapping into local colleges and universities to recruit college interns or graduates with disabilities.
- Exploring internship programs geared toward students with disabilities such as the Workforce Recruitment Program.
- Including an invitation to individuals with disabilities to apply as part of your standard equal employment opportunity statements in recruitment materials.
- Indicating through recruitment materials your willingness to provide accommodations during the hiring and interviewing processes.
- Advertising the existence of employee resource or affinity groups, particularly any geared toward employees with a disability interest, as part of your company’s benefits and professional development opportunities.
- Evaluating applicant screening processes to ensure that those practices do not unintentionally exclude people with disabilities.
- Ensuring hiring staff are aware of appropriate and legal interview practices and guidelines.
Create accessible and universally designed workplaces, spaces, processes and opportunities
You should routinely assess the level of physical, programmatic and social access of your workplace and make needed improvements. This should be done whether you have been asked to make an accommodation or not. This should include assessing your organization’s:
- Website accessibility.
- Online application system.
- Physical spaces, including: break rooms, cafeterias and public areas.
- Locations for offsite work functions.
- Emergency plans to ensure they include evacuation and safety procedures for employees with sensory, mobility, and cognitive disabilities.
Conducting these assessments and improvements, and proactively sharing this information with staff, will increase comfort levels, encourage disclosure, and heighten sensitivity and awareness among workers without disabilities.
Invite employees to disclose their disability through voluntary surveys
Voluntary surveys that gather data about applicant and employee demographics and perceptions of workplace climate and culture can help employers measure whether they are meeting hiring or retention goals. When collecting this information:
- Be clear about the purpose of the survey (i.e., regulatory compliance, anonymous monitoring, gauging success in diversifying the workforce).
- Ensure that the survey is voluntary and employees are not forced or coerced into responding to it.
- Be clear about the benefits to employees in sharing this information.
For example, include a disclaimer on the survey that explains the company’s desire to diversify its workforce, support all employees equally and learn more about employees in order to assess whether efforts to recruit and retain individuals with disabilities and other minority groups are proving successful. Federal contractors must use the mandatory self-identification form approved by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act. This form cannot be altered.
It is important to note that invitations to self-identify as individuals with disabilities are permissible only when the question is being asked for affirmative action purposes such as those prescribed by Section 503 or a voluntarily adopted program.
Conduct disability diversity training for staff
Consider conducting disability awareness or sensitivity training for all staff as part of your overall diversity training efforts, regardless of whether or not you are aware of staff members with disabilities.
Having ongoing training will help reduce stigma, fear and misperceptions regarding how to interact and communicate with individuals with disabilities. It also provides an opportunity for all staff to better understand their legal rights and employers’ legal responsibilities. Such training can also:
- Educate staff on the diversity that exists among people with disabilities.
- Send a message that you value individuals with disabilities as employees and customers.
- Increase comfort in disclosing for individuals with non-visible disabilities.
Enact flexible workplace policies and options
Offering all employees the ability to work remotely or from home, or to modify schedules as needed to adjust to personal, family or medical situations, sends a message that you will accommodate disability related needs in the same manner that you will accommodate other personal needs.
Design, implement and communicate fair systems for staff to raise or address issues or complaints, including performance management issues
You should clearly communicate policies regarding behavioral expectations, performance standards, and how to report disparate treatment or discrimination.
Remember to hold all employees to the same performance standards and expectations, and communicate those clearly. Employees with disabilities should not be held to either higher or lower expectations than others and their performance successes and challenges should be responded to and addressed in same manner as other employees.
Develop and communicate a clear process for requesting and considering reasonable accommodations
Employees often make the decision to disclose their disability based on need for an accommodation. You should have a clear process in place and communicated to supervisors, HR personnel and employees regarding how applicants and employees should request disability-related accommodations and the process and timeline by which HR/supervisors will consider and respond to the request.
Consider providing the accommodation policies and procedures on the organization’s intranet and in any online or printed materials related to orientation, onboarding, or employee handbooks.
Foster supportive supervisor-staff relationships
For many supervisors, disability may be an uncomfortable topic, or an area where they have very little knowledge or experience. Training in management practices and disability awareness and etiquette can increase supervisors’ comfort in discussing disability issues and help foster supportive supervisor-employee relationships that encourage disclosure.
Implement professional development programs for employees with disabilities
Organizations should consider including individuals with disabilities in mentoring or other training programs that have been used to increase the presence of underrepresented groups (females and racial/ethnic minorities) in management.
Implement a disability employee resource group (ERG) that is open to anyone with an interest in disability issues
The presence of a disability employee resource group (ERG)—sometimes called an affinity group or business resource group—is a visible sign of organizational commitment to this population. Research has shown that ERGs are a particularly important factor in influencing the decision to disclose among individuals with a less apparent disability.
Opening these groups to anyone with a disability interest ensures a forum for individuals with non-visible disabilities who may be reluctant to disclose and for employees who may have family, partners or children with disabilities to share information and ideas.
Employers have considerable opportunity to be creative in their efforts to build and sustain a diverse and inclusive workplace that encourages employees to share aspects of their identity, including the presence of a visible or non-visible disability, with one another. It is this inclusiveness and openness that will ultimately lead to a more diverse and productive workforce.