One of the most tangible benefits of embracing diversity and inclusion is a company’s ability to attract a broader pool of qualified talent. Conversations about being more inclusive in the workplace focus mostly on gender and race, sometimes on sexuality and age, and only rarely on other forms of diversity. However, a significant opportunity exists for organizations to tap into a large pool of people with disabilities: in 2015, 11% of working-age individuals in the U.S. identified as having a disability, but full-time employment among this group was only 35%, with more than one million individuals reporting they were actively seeking work. And this figure does not include the large numbers of highly talented people with disabilities who are not seeking work because they choose instead to start their own businesses.
Some organizations have turned disabilities into a competitive advantage. For instance, ULTRA Testing, Aspiritech, MindSpark and Auticon (which recently received an investment from Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group) have found that individuals who fall on the autistic spectrum can excel at a variety of IT-related tasks.
Even without considering these unique situations, hiring people with disabilities represents a significant opportunity to gain an edge in the competition for talent. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that hiring people with disabilities also presents potential challenges for employers: some are practical in nature, such as providing accessibility for people with physical disabilities; but often the barriers are due to perception, as employers and colleagues may be uncomfortable interacting with people with disabilities.
We recently spoke with Xian Horn, founder of Give Beauty Wings and Changeblazer, Inc., and with Kathy Bernhardt, managing director of Tangram Business Resourcing, a company that helps organizations gain a competitive advantage by implementing successful inclusion practices for individuals living with all types of disabilities.
We asked them for tips on how employers can support employees with disabilities. Here are some of their suggestions.
1. Be sure to focus on the person, not the disabilities. Remember that your employees were hired because they have the skills to do the job.
2. Don’t underestimate or overestimate, and most importantly don’t make tacit assumptions about your employees: communicate with them to get a sense of who they are, what skill sets they may offer and what limitations they may face.
3. Don’t judge someone for what they don’t know or what they are unable to do. Guide them and communicate to reach a shared understanding of responsibilities and expectations.
4. If your employees are struggling with some responsibilities, consider whether they are in a role that is ideal for them, and whether there may be more effective ways to utilize their talents.
5. Don’t let fear and stigma get in the way of being natural around employees with disabilities: keep the lines of communication open, relax and be respectful in your conversations.
6. Celebrate the silence: some people with disabilities are very visual learners and may need more time than others to answer a question or complete a thought. Don’t let the awkwardness of a brief silence push you to be verbally overwhelming.
7. Ensure your messages have come across effectively: ask the employees to show you what you have explained or ask them to repeat the question. All of us have different communication and learning styles, and this approach will avoid misunderstandings while helping them retain information.
8. Be clear in giving directions and feedback. Don’t be afraid to give employees with disabilities feedback just like everyone else.
9. Create an environment where employees are encouraged to ask for help or ask questions. Ensure employees know how to ask for help.
10. Establish clear standards of social behavior, even if you feel it may be self-explanatory. Don’t assume that your employees know what standards to expect. Be aware that some people with disabilities may not be as familiar with certain social cues, while it may seem second nature to others.
What struck us about these tips is that most of them are common-sense ideas that are applicable to all employees—not just those with disabilities. This strengthens our belief that being inclusive is highly beneficial for any organization, regardless of the employees with whom they choose to work.
This article was written by Paolo Gaudiano and Ellen Hunt from Forbes and is licensed by Bloomberg.