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Your inclusive workplace culture might be leaving someone out

Published by: LifeWorks,

December 3rd is International Day of Persons With Disabilities. It’s the perfect time to promote understanding of disabilities and to support the dignity and well-being of those who live with these unique challenges.

The United Nations, which observes this day annually, established the 2017 theme as “transformation towards sustainable and resilient society for all.” This is a mindset that can change the workplace as you know it.

In fact, you can play an active role in building an inclusive, positive workplace culture that makes all employees feel valued and welcomed, every day.

Support this theme and the UN’s goals by:

  • Ending stigmas and developing understanding through education
  • Implementing policies that encourage equality
  • Building a workplace culture around inclusion and well-being.

Here’s what you need to know about disabilities and how your workplace culture can lead positive change:

Understanding the diverse impact of disabilities

People with disabilities are living with physical and/or mental impairments that limit major life activities, and it’s up to you to educate your employees on how each disability is unique.

Employees who live with disabilities may confront varying degrees of discrimination and face major obstacles every day as a result of those around them not understanding the complexity of their nuances.

For example, an employee with autism may struggle focusing or comprehending a large amount of information given at one time. They also might express themselves in a way that comes off as too blunt and hurts co-workers’ feelings. This makes building relationships harder as well, so this disability can disrupt a lot of aspects of their quality of life.

Similarly, employees living with cerebral palsy are more likely to struggle with participating in activities that benefit their personal well-being. Basic daily routines like taking a shower and cooking can be major obstacles, so following exercise plans is even more difficult.

Additionally, you might have employees who are taking care of family members who live with disabilities. It’s important that these employees know how to help those loved ones with disabilities manage daily activities while balancing meeting their own needs.

Learn and grow together through real-life experience.

To effectively raise awareness about common disabilities and encourage understanding, start a campaign that uses real stories from employees who live with disabilities.

If they feel comfortable, record videos showing what living and working with disabilities looks like. You can ask them questions about their daily lives and show how they manage obstacles.

If employees don’t feel comfortable sharing stories about their disabilities, create educational content to demonstrate that not all disabilities are physically apparent.

Host a meeting where you share pictures of people, and ask your employees to describe what they see. Then, reveal how the subjects in the pictures have ‘invisible’ disabilities, like diabetes, mental illness, and chronic pain.

Highlight what that means in the workplace. For example, the woman who uses a lot of sick time is caring for her son who has cerebral palsy. The loner who eats his lunch in his car has severe anxiety, and this small bit of isolation is what helps him manage it throughout the day. The cubicle neighbors you always hear snacking needs to eat at her desk to manage her insulin levels because she has Type 1 diabetes.

This meeting shows that looks can be deceiving: you would never guess from looking at the person that they’re living with a disability.

An awareness campaign is meant to show that those who live with disabilities are not burdens or defective. They don’t need pity or sympathy. They deserve to feel understood and valued for who they are.

Ending the stigma

Society perpetuates many common stigmas that can cause a person living with disabilities to feel ashamed or misunderstood. Your workplace culture needs to be where these stigmas stop. When you break them down, you’re building a better world for all employees.

This happens when you create understanding.

If your team knows how a colleague’s visual impairment impacts his day-to-day, they will know how to appropriately address situations when it’s necessary to consider his disability. They won’t make unfair assumptions.

Instead of assuming that the employee who is visually impaired can’t participate in the company’s bowling league, create an environment that allows him to make those decisions on his own and gives him the opportunity to voice his needs.

To create a workplace culture, where employees with disabilities feel included and understood, continue to educate your staff on specific conditions. You could, for example, host a charity fundraising event for organizations that are promoting awareness of a disability.

When you organize the event, hire guest speakers to share their stories. Through getting invested in a cause and learning about specific disabilities, you are teaching employees to empathize with people who have a different experience.

Establishing proper etiquette

Bottom line: Everyone, regardless of their abilities, deserves to be treated with the same respect, offered the same choices, and acknowledged for their uniqueness in the same way.

Disabilities should not be the main focus, but don’t ignore them either. It is a part of who these individuals are. They may not always be able to be treated the exact same way as everyone else, in terms of how their day or tasks are structured, but they have a voice and they know their limitations and greatest assets better than anyone else.

Empower everyone to succeed. This is a value you need to teach from the first day. Your workplace culture is built on respect, and defining etiquette for new hires is how you strengthen it.

Your employees already know to treat everyone with respect, but you should still establish etiquette rules regarding disabilities, such as:

  • Speak directly to those who have a disability. If they have a companion, you still need to treat them with respect. The companion will help when they’re needed.
  • Don’t assume they need help. If you notice them struggling with something, ask if they need assistance first. Then, either help them or let them complete their task on their own.
  • Never use victim or hero language, like ‘suffers from’ or ‘struggles with.’ Similarly, don’t make people with disabilities sound heroic when they complete everyday tasks. They’re simply living their lives, just like everyone else.

To measure how your employees respect one another, conduct etiquette surveys on a regular basis. This gives everyone a chance to anonymously share feedback about how they feel the workplace culture delivers respect and inclusion.

Then, host etiquette seminars to show your staff the results and remind them about your etiquette rules. These seminars are great for emphasizing the importance of treating all employees with respect and showing how inclusion plays an important part in your culture.

Make your employees feel loved