There is a lot of appetite for inclusion in the workplace. Many companies and organizations employ diversity and inclusion specialists. There may be some signs of inclusion and certainly there is more diversity, but are people working in more inclusive workplaces? The reality is that these concepts have not yet achieved real systemic change.
People with intellectual disabilities (ID), representing roughly 3% of the total population, are still one of the least employable groups in the world. According to the U.S. National Core Indicators report, only 19% of people with intellectual disabilities have a paid job.
Why is that? It has to do with a lack of understanding and a fundamental belief that people with ID are not employable, are too risky, and will require a massive amount of costly training and support. For people with intellectual disabilities — one of the most misunderstood minority groups in the world — this presents a great challenge.
Studies have shown that when companies employ a diverse workforce, they achieve significant improvements in their business bottom line. It happens because diverse team members create much more objective and creative solutions, which result in better products and services. These results are the direct impact of diversity.
Meaningful inclusion is an important “friend” of diversity that is harder to achieve. It helps staff improve their understanding of difference and be better equipped to use this understanding to everyone’s advantage. Inclusion creates visible improvements in terms of staff happiness, positive culture and, ultimately, productivity. It helps organizations change, serve their customers better and open up new markets.
People with intellectual disabilities bring to a team not only unique perspectives but also multiple talents and gifts, including bravery, perseverance and empathy. When given a chance, they effectively share these gifts with others and create lasting attitude and behavior changes, thus improving the overall culture of teams and the organization. Take Hannah Atkinson as an example. A Special Olympics medal-winning alpine skier, she is hard at work changing others as a valuable team member of Olive Garden and a Denver7 news reporter.
How does this true inclusion happen? What does it take? We live in an era where there are mechanisms, tools, funding and ways to enable meaningful inclusive opportunities for everyone.
One such tool is Special Olympics’ approach to leadership development, called Unified Leadership. It is rooted in two key elements. The first is to train and develop people with intellectual disabilities (the minority group) to increase confidence and skills and become leaders in their community. The second element is to educate people without intellectual disabilities on how to be more understanding, how to accept difference and how to develop a more inclusive way of thinking. The second approach is best achieved when people with and without disabilities come together to learn from each other. This is where the magic of opening up hearts and minds happens. Typical inclusion development initiatives miss one of these two elements.
The practice of building a more inclusive business culture requires a change of thinking around the traditional workplace. The following six strategies can help drive this change:
Ensure that creating an inclusive culture becomes everyone’s business and responsibility. People at all levels carry on the organizational culture, after all. Bringing C-suite leadership on board with this necessary change and creating an urgency among the entire team is crucial.
Provide training to people on verbal and nonverbal cues, and support and initiate adaptions that create an empowering environment for people with disabilities. It is also simply “letting go” so that people with disabilities can fulfill their potential.
Create ongoing efforts for employees to interact with and learn from people with disabilities. This could open you up to new approaches, new products and all sorts of possibilities.
Ensure solutions are making an impact by gathering feedback. For example, people with disabilities could review a recruitment process, because hiring processes typically use inflexible measurement tools that discourage neurodiverse applicants. Adjusting advertising, application and interview processes slightly could open your organization to rich neurodiversity, while maintaining a solid rigor.
Commit to and implement ideas of the truly adaptive workspace, including flexible hours and locations, noise levels, and other adjustments that would make your office a better place for everyone, not just workers with a disability.
Tap into the diversity and talent of your staff members with disabilities. It could lead to all sorts of possibilities, including better products and a completely new way of looking at your business.
Just like companies invest in information technology (IT) or ramps and accessibility for people with physical disabilities, so, too, should they invest in the necessary mechanisms to be more inclusive of people of diverse cognitive abilities to help develop better cultures, mindsets and values.
If you look to hire people with disabilities and accept them as they are, your company will be better positioned to engage with an important segment of your customer community. You will also discover that being more inclusive will help everybody, because your organization will be much better at understanding people, which is such a key ingredient of business success.