In 2023, the US Department of Labor reported that 24.5% of people with disabilities were in employment.
In 2022, that figure stood at 23.1%, and in 2021 it was 19.1%.
More and more people with disabilities are now in employment, and gradually these numbers are growing year after year.
It means employers need to prioritize building workplaces that support employees with disabilities, and it’s not too late if you haven’t started already.
In this article, we’re discussing how organizations can do just that with disability inclusion.
We spoke with Ellie Westgarth-Flynn, Learning, Culture, and Change Consultant, about how the ADKAR framework for change can guide businesses towards creating organizational change to better support employees with disabilities.
We also heard from Ree Young, Youth Community Engagement Officer at Scope, and Joel Felsenstein, Founder and CEO at RockstarX, about their experiences.
But, before we dive into ADKAR, you need to know the types of discrimination employees with disabilities face in the workplace.
After all, if you can’t spot it, you can’t stop it.
The different types of workplace disability discrimination
Discrimination in the workplace typically falls into one of two categories. There’s direct discrimination and indirect discrimination.
Let’s look at the two.
Direct disability discrimination
Direct discrimination occurs when an employee who has a disability experiences outright prejudice or unfair behavior from a manager or teammate.
Direct discrimination includes discrimination against people who have a disability, discrimination against people who are perceived to have a disability, and people who are associated with people who have a disability.
Direct discrimination includes:
- Offensive comments or language
- Work policies that target people with disabilities
- A culture of discomfort at work for people with disabilities
Indirect disability discrimination
Indirect discrimination is when a general policy or process that affects everybody disproportionately negatively affects people with a disability.
It’s when a one-size-fits-all approach fits the masses well enough, but leaves terrible blisters with the minority—in this case, people with disabilities in the workplace.
Indirect discrimination looks like:
- A policy that disadvantages people with disabilities
- A work schedule that doesn’t accommodate flexibility or needs
- Tools and processes that offer no accommodations for people with disabilities
Stopping both types of discrimination is crucial for ensuring you’re building a DEI workplace, in which all employees feel comfortable being their authentic selves.
However, preventing discrimination is the bare minimum when it comes to fostering a disability-friendly workplace.
You need to actively work to build a culture that supports and accommodates the needs of employees with disabilities.
Luckily for you, there’s a clear framework to follow.
How to create a disability-friendly workplace: applying the ADKAR framework
Wanting to make change is one thing, but actually seeing it through is another. The ADKAR framework helps you get there.
The ADKAR framework is a model for change management that’s based on the idea that organizational change can only happen when individuals change.
The model was developed by Jeff Hiatt in 2006 after he studied the change patterns of more than 700 organizations and identified five crucial steps for making change.
We spoke with Ellie Westgarth-Flynn, Learning, Change, and Culture Consultant, about the five stages of change presented by ADKAR.
Let’s get into each of the steps.
Awareness: of the need for change
Awareness is the first step to creating change in an organization. It involves highlighting the need for change and, more importantly, communicating why change is needed.
It’s about laying the foundations and getting everyone on board to support the following four steps (DKAR).
Ellie notes that awareness of the need to change has been growing in recent years:
“I think delivering awareness training has been a big part of what’s happened in response to the big diversity, equity, and inclusion drive in organizations.”
Some of the actions companies can take to build awareness include:
- Provide clear explanations of why change is needed
- Highlight the problems with how things are currently
- Focus on the benefits of the change and how it impacts everyone
But, awareness is only the first step—and many organizations are already aware that change is needed to better support employees with disabilities—which is great!
Desire: to participate and support change
The next step is the desire to make change. Just because organizations—and the people within them—are aware that change is needed, it doesn’t mean that change will be made.
There needs to be a desire to make the change.
Ellie tells us more about cultivating a desire to build a disability-friendly workplace:
“During this stage, you want to support people in identifying the benefits of a different approach or a different way of viewing the world.
For example, some people with disabilities might have a lesser ability to break things down, but more of an ability to see the big picture. You want to highlight why I need both of these approaches in day-to-day business.”
Companies can foster this desire in several ways:
- Designate change leaders to prioritize making change
- Identify and address the root cause for resistance to change
- Connect with individuals to explain how change can positively benefit their day-to-day
Once individuals desire change, working towards implementing it becomes a lot easier.
Knowledge: of how to change
Next up, organizations need to build knowledge on how to make change.
This is where education and training come in, and it’s where companies tend to encounter issues—as we heard from Ellie, who is also dyslexic:
“Knowledge is a lot of what’s missing. People understand that employees with disabilities face different challenges, but there’s a lack of knowledge on what that actually means.
One way to do this is by highlighting the adjustments that employees with disabilities make to perform their roles. For example, I have a lot of physical lists—I don’t use digital tools because I can’t use my spatial memory on a screen.
This means my desk can sometimes look like a scene out of CSI, even if I’m having a relatively normal day.
Bringing attention to the adjustments that employees with disabilities make to perform their roles helps increase knowledge of what’s required to support them.
However, be careful not to use employees with disabilities as default spokespeople:
“The kind of training that organizations tend to put out is not always wonderful. I had first-hand experience of being involved in training where members of the organization who identified as marginalized in some way were called forward to share their experiences.”
Of course, this is okay if employees genuinely want to share, but delegating disability education to employees with disabilities shouldn’t be the default.
Not everyone is comfortable sharing their experiences, and nor should they have to be.
Instead, consider working with a Change Consultant to create a purpose-built education and training program.
“Off-the-peg training can be nice, but it’s a box tick—especially when there’s a whole industry out there of training professionals.
Opt for one-to-one conversations and workshops that are more around reflecting your own practice, and less around somebody parachuting in, telling a story, and then hoping there might be some kind of change.”-Ellie
Ellie shares the questions she’d ask herself when putting together this sort of training:
- How can I share the knowledge of what this experience is?
- What’s day-to-day work like for people with different disabilities?
- How do the strengths of employees with disabilities reflect what you understand about building a high-performing team?
This step is about removing the problematic lens through which people often view disability:
“It’s not people who act and think normally and people who act and think abnormally.
If you remove that idea of normativity you end up with a much richer picture of the potential of a group of people to maximize their capability in the workplace.”
“Employers and companies should highlight the importance of these individuals’ creativity, and find their strengths to utilize them.
I encourage not just disability awareness, but also disability acceptance.”Joel Felsenstein, Founder and CEO of RockstarX
Once you’ve increased your organization’s knowledge, the next step is to empower them to make a change.
Ability: to implement change
This stage is about bridging the gap between knowledge and ability. Just because people know how to do something, they don’t necessarily have the confidence to actually do it.
Here’s where you focus in on individuals and teams to provide guidance on implementing actual change.
Leaders and managers play a huge part in this process, as they’re the individuals who have oversight of what everyone is doing.
Ellie shares some thoughts on how leaders can support employees with disabilities:
“One approach could be getting everyone in your organization, whether they have a disability or not, to pull their strategies for planning work.
This helps highlight how other people perform tasks and enables leaders to support disabled employees by discussing alternatives that are working for others in the organization.”
When it comes to supporting employees with disabilities, there’s no single solution. Leaders should talk with employees to find specific solutions to accommodate their needs.
These conversations shouldn’t be difficult—and leaders needn’t feel like there’s a right and wrong way to approach them.
Ellie tells us more:
“As a consultant, a lot of what I do involves grounding people and encouraging normal talk.
I remember showing up to my last full-time contract and immediately saying, ‘I’m dyslexic, so please forgive me if my desk looks bonkers’. My then-boss immediately said, ‘I’m dyslexic, too.’”
Creating disability-friendly workplaces is, in part, about speaking openly about disabilities in the workplace.
It’s not always necessary to speak about it in a super formal setting.
Of course, not all employees will have leaders with the same disability, but Ellie shares what would’ve been equally helpful.
“Had that not been the case, I would’ve liked someone to ask:
- Where do you do your best work?
- How do you approach your work?
- What tools do you use to support your work?
You want to create the space for adjustments to come from the employee.”
“I work for a disability and equality charity, Scope, and we have adjustment passports that include personalized adjustments for your disability and needs.
For example, I start work later as my disability affects my sleep.”Ree Young, Youth Community Engagement Officer at Scope
Empowering people to share their need for reasonable adjustments is crucial for building a disability-friendly organization.
Reinforcement: to sustain the change
Finally, we’ve got reinforcement. This stage is all about keeping momentum.
Ellie highlights that reinforcement is often the missing piece in many attempts to better support employees with disabilities in the workplace.
Changes need to be reinforced to stick, but what can organizations do to help reinforce the changes they’ve made?
It’s not on employees with disabilities to move the needle towards a more disability-friendly organization.
As we’ve discussed, leaders and managers act as catalysts for change when implementing and reinforcing these changes.
Ellie shares her advice:
“The kind of activities that involve reinforcement could look like peer mentoring or reverse mentoring. This is when somebody might pair with a leader and go to them—maybe on a monthly or bi-weekly basis—to check-in.
This could be as simple as asking, ‘Have you made the agreed adjustments for these people?’”
Reinforcement isn’t just about, well, reinforcing—it’s also about holding your organization and team accountable.
Prioritizing creating a healthy, happy organization in which people with disabilities feel comfortable being their authentic selves involves hard work.
It won’t happen just because you want it to, it requires consistent effort, focus, and learning.
It’s time to start supporting employees with disabilities in your workplace
The ADKAR framework is how you’ll build a company culture that supports and champions people with disabilities.
However, as you’ve likely guessed, making change takes time.
Here’s some actionable advice on supporting employees that you can take today as part of your efforts to build an inclusive workplace tomorrow:
- Partner with Change and Culture Consultants and educators to create training and resources
- Speak directly with employees about their needs and reasonable adjustments
- Prioritize disability-friendly language and information as part of your employer branding
- Establish a formal complaint process and go-to person for people with disabilities
Accessible, inclusive workplaces are better for everyone, and include a lot we can continue to learn from.
To close out, Ellie shares a learning from her days in teaching:
“If something might benefit one person, it’s likely to benefit all of them.”
Educating and empowering your team to make change, supporting and accommodating the adjustments that employees with disabilities need, and fostering a disability-friendly workplace creates a better work environment for all.
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.
Don’t hesitate to start your journey to becoming a more inclusive, disability-friendly organization.