Disability Inclusion — the missing piece in DEI efforts

Denis Boudreau
7 min readAug 14, 2023
Person in a wheelchair discussing with a man standing up in front of them in a business setting.
Photo credit — Canva.

So, let me start this week’s blog post by saying that the inclusion of people with disabilities in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts is crucial for creating truly inclusive and equitable workplaces. This is my baseline. My non-negotiable starting point.

Actually, let me rephrase that: in fact, there CANNOT be any real recognition for values like diversity, equity, and inclusion in an organization if the policies that are put in place are not being very intentional about welcoming, supporting, and accommodating employees and customers living with disabilities.

In other words, if the DEI efforts of your organization are leaving out disability inclusion, you’re doing it wrong.

As unfortunate as it may be, the reality out there is that far too many DEI initiatives and policies fail to recognize and enable individuals with disabilities. As you’ll most likely agree, businesses have a vital role to play in driving social change, and DEI is perhaps one of the most important issues to address.

As businesses keep evolving and adapting to the changing social and economic landscapes, DEI constantly grows into one of the most defining challenges (and opportunities) for many organizations.

Great progress, but still not enough

Undoubtedly, incredible progress has clearly been achieved in recent years regarding characteristics such as gender, racial, and sexual orientation equality. But one aspect that is still largely overlooked and neglected today when it comes to DEI remains disability.

The United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines those it advocates for as people “who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” However, a report from the Return On Disability Group found that only 4% of companies consider disability in their diversity initiatives, despite 90% of companies claiming to prioritize diversity.

Underwhelming at best!

Hear me out; if we’re to affect any kind of positive change in the future, our key to truly inclusive workplaces will lie in redefining disability inclusion within our DEI initiatives. To make our own little dent in the universe, we’ll need to first begin by acknowledging the unique challenges that are faced by individuals with disabilities!

It will also require a proactive approach to planning and implementing policies, practices, and frameworks that center primarily around their inclusion, empowerment, and success.

As leaders, we have to start recognizing that disability inclusion is not a charitable act or a question of compliance! There’s a necessity to view it as an imperative to foster creativity, innovation, and employee engagement because the future belongs to organizations that treat inclusion as a strategic business priority. And that includes disability inclusion.

Steps for leaders to build a disability-inclusive workplace

I’ve been circling around the topic of disability inclusion quite a bit recently, sharing my thoughts and insights, and I promise you — this conversation isn’t over yet. Today, however, I’d like to shift the focus a little and lay out five key steps leaders can embrace to foster a more disability-friendly environment at work. I stand by these steps — they’re vital in setting up a truly inclusive workspace where our colleagues with disabilities can flourish.

Undoubtedly, achieving this is a tall order. It demands not just a top-down commitment from leadership but a bottom-up effort where every single team member comes on board. By choosing to act upon these guidelines, compassionate leaders aiming for a positive shift can seamlessly weave disability inclusion into the very fabric of their organization’s ethos and everyday operations.

Increase awareness and understanding

It all begins with understanding, and understanding stems from education. Organize disability inclusion training programs, but make them more engaging by delving deeper into the daily realities and experiences of people with disabilities. Tell their stories, share their real-life experiences, facilitate case discussions, and host open forums… Better yet, amplify the voices of individuals with disabilities by inviting them to lead these conversations! Their personal narratives will be the most powerful testimonies to the daily challenges that these individuals face. But don’t stop there — education isn’t a one-off thing! Provide your employees with resources that spur ongoing learning. Encourage a culture of openness and curiosity. Prompt your team to dig deeper, to better understand their colleagues with disabilities. Strive to create an atmosphere where questions aren’t just welcomed, but also nurtured. A place where empathy blossoms naturally. It’s these seemingly small steps that will make the biggest impact in fostering inclusivity.

Champion representation and voice

Inclusivity is only truly seen in action when proper representation is set as a cultural and organizational priority. Consequently, for disability inclusion to be a resounding success, it’s essential that we create safe spaces where colleagues and peers with disabilities feel confident to share their ideas, suggestions, and worries. Make it a conscious effort to attract diverse talents with disabilities. More importantly, ensure that these individuals feel valued, are happy to show up for work, and want to remain with the company! Carve paths for and promote individuals with disabilities to leadership roles. This will make the message of inclusivity echo louder. Get an internal panel together, one that represents varied abilities and voices. Facilitate the creation of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), where people are welcome to speak their minds and share their lived experiences. Ensure different perspectives are given a platform during decision-making so that everyone feels the value of their respective contributions. Do this, and watch how the richness of their experiences inspires innovative solutions that benefit the entire organization.

Develop inclusive policies and practices

An inclusive organization naturally stands tall on its policies and practices. Strive to create policies that do more than just tick boxes or follow the letter of the law. Think about offering accommodations like flexible hours to help those dealing with health appointments or simply days when energy levels are low. Equip your team with the necessary tools and technology they need to do their job to the fullest of their abilities. Build a culture where everyone feels safe to be their authentic self and no one feels the need to mask. An environment where sharing about one’s disabilities isn’t met with judgment and stigma but with understanding. It’s critical that employees feel safe to disclose their disabilities without the looming fear of discrimination. Remember, equal opportunities aren’t a bonus; they’re a given. Embed these values right from the recruitment phase and ensure everyone gets a fair shot at growth and success.

Develop and invest in accessible solutions

Accessibility is one of the major keys to inclusion. Invest in infrastructures that are inclusive and accessible to all by default and by design — be it physical workspaces, technology, or communication platforms. Within physical workspaces, small but significant modifications can make a world of difference. Installing ramps, elevators, and adaptive workstations that accommodate mobility aids is a great start. So is ensuring that restrooms and other key areas of the office are designed to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. In the digital space, compatibility with assistive technologies should be a given, not an afterthought. Adhering to internationally recognized guidelines like those provided by W3C for digital accessibility can ensure we don’t miss crucial details. Promote inclusive design principles so the needs of people with disabilities are considered from the very early development phases of new tools, products, or services, and empower your entire workforce to contribute at their fullest potential!

Monitor progress and accountability

We all know that progress and accountability typically go hand in hand. Establish metrics to measure your organization’s progress toward disability inclusion and hold everyone accountable. This isn’t just about data points like the numbers you hire or retain. It’s about taking a comprehensive view of your workforce. It’s about considering important elements, such as how you’re providing opportunities for career advancement. It’s about ensuring the satisfaction and well-being of the team. It’s about creating a friendly and accommodating atmosphere. To help manage these aspects, it’s crucial to assign teams or individuals who can maintain the focus. Designate individuals or committees responsible for overseeing these metrics. Since work cultures that are authentically welcoming and inclusive are created when everyone does their part, make it a shared responsibility. Inclusion is a collective commitment. When everyone is invested, everyone works towards a more inclusive workplace.

Moving towards a more inclusive future

Creating workplaces that are inclusive to people with disabilities isn’t just an act of moral righteousness. It’s a business necessity! As our world keeps changing rapidly, organizations need to keep up. They have to adapt. They must come up with fresh ideas. The inclusive workplaces of tomorrow will be those that value the unique insights and input of all their employees, including those with disabilities.

I say it often because it’s important: inclusion is a journey. As such, it demands continuous growth, dedication, and effort from everyone. It falls on all of us as leaders to take assertive and purposeful steps to cultivate workplaces where every individual feels acknowledged, included, and empowered to give their all and unleash their full potential.

By making disability inclusion a cornerstone of your DEI efforts, you do more than just recognize the value and worth of your employees with disabilities. You also tap into a wellspring of potential and innovation. Diversity, including disability, isn’t a hindrance but a source of resilience and strength. It’s high time our workplaces reflect this truth!

So, let’s pledge to improve, shall we? And let’s begin today. The future of disability inclusion in the workplace starts with us. Remember, a truly inclusive environment doesn’t leave anyone out.

This post was originally published on InklusivComm’s Info-Hub as: https://inklusiv.ca/disability-inclusion-the-missing-piece-in-dei-efforts/

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Denis Boudreau

Helping leaders connect with the missing piece in their DEI efforts. Amazon BestSelling Author “The Inclusive Speaker". Speaker/Trainer/Coach. #neurodivergent