National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) takes place every October, so it’s a good time to place a spotlight on the contributions that workers with disabilities can make to the workforce and highlight the requirements of workplace inclusivity.
Employers must provide employees with inclusive workplaces that are free from discrimination, intimidation, and harassment. Without proper information, management techniques, and training, a workplace can become an environment that gives rise to unfair and even unlawful employment practices.
The Requirements of Inclusive Workplaces
The meaning of diversity in the workplace changed dramatically with the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the earliest nondiscrimination laws. This legislation specifically refers to discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, and national origin. In later years, the meaning of diversity has expanded to include many other characteristics, including age, gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, and disability.
The five major federal laws that protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination in employment and the job application process include:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- The Rehabilitation Act
- The Civil Service Reform Act
- The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act
- The Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act
These laws all share the same fundamental goal: to remove any barriers to employment faced by people with disabilities. But, not all of these laws will apply to every employer. Which law applies will depend on whether the employer is in the private or public sector, whether they accept federal contracts, and how many employees they have.
Also, many states have anti-discrimination laws that provide additional protections for individuals with disabilities.
Disability Discrimination in the Workplace
According to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Disability Rights, people with disabilities are woefully underrepresented in the workforce. While 68.2% of people without disabilities are employed, just 20.8% of people with disabilities are participating in the workforce.
While discrimination in the workplace isn’t the only reason for this underrepresentation, it is a major contributor to these numbers. Disability discrimination refers to treating an individual differently due to a disability, perceived disability, or association with a disabled person. Some examples of this could include:
- Making decisions related to recruitment, hiring, firing, promotions, job assignments, layoffs, leave, pay, or benefits based on mental or physical disabilities.
- Asking a job applicant about past or current medical conditions or requiring a medical exam for employment.
- Harassing employees based on their disability.
- Maintaining or creating a work environment that would physically limit the movement of people with disabilities.
- Declining to provide reasonable accommodations to a worker with mental or physical disabilities.
If an employee or job applicant believes that you’ve violated their rights, they have recourse. They might file an internal complaint, which is the first sign that you might not have an inclusive workplace. Other possibilities are a charge of discrimination—filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or similar state agency—and a subsequent lawsuit.
Placing Focus on Workplace Inclusivity
Whether it is National Disability Awareness Month or not, employers should make inclusion in the workplace a priority. According to EARN, a disability inclusion resource for employers funded by the Department of Labor, some of the common characteristics of disability-inclusive businesses are:
1. Fosters an Inclusive Business Culture
An organization’s commitment to inclusion should begin at the highest levels of leadership and extend to the front lines. Company leaders should adopt formal expressions of intent related to recruiting, hiring, and retaining qualified workers with disabilities.
2. Promotes Disability-Inclusive Talent Acquisition and Retention
Companies can create outreach programs to build a pipeline of qualified job candidates. Companies must review processes and policies across the employment lifecycle to ensure they promote instead of impeding recruiting, hiring, and retaining employees with disabilities.
3. Provides Accommodations to Employees with Disabilities
When an employee with a disability needs a “reasonable accommodation” to perform their job, federal law outlines the employers’ obligations to provide these.
4. Ensures Communication of Internal and External Policies
An employer must communicate its commitment to having a diverse and inclusive work environment to both internal (vendors, subcontractors, employees) and external customers.
5. Promotes Self-Identification and Accountability
To ensure that policies, procedures, and practices are having the desired effect of enhancing employment opportunities for people with disabilities, tracking is necessary. Businesses should establish training programs, procedures for self-identification, accountability measures, and designated responsible individuals.
The vast majority of employers provide equal opportunities to job applicants and staff and fulfill their obligations through a commitment to fair employment practices. These activities shouldn’t be limited to October but should permeate every level of any organization’s operations.