How to Make Accommodations That Attract and Motivate Workers With Disabilities
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With major corporations like Microsoft making an active effort to acquire disabled talent through inclusive hiring programs, it’s no surprise that more disabled people are entering the workforce. In fact, according to 2019 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, close to 20 percent of people with disabilities were employed, which is an increase from prior years.
Despite this positive change, a general lack of understanding around disabilities may put some of these individuals at risk for having their particular needs ignored. This is especially true for employees who struggle with disabilities that are not immediately visible — such as depression, anxiety, autism spectrum disorders (ASD), Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and others.
Although it might seem challenging to address needs that you might not see or understand, you can still accommodate them in simple and cost-efficient ways. Here’s how to do that.
Offer a dedicated quiet room to all workers, not just disabled workers
This one is very popular, especially in startups I visit around the Bay Area. Sometimes a break from the daily hustle and bustle of the office is just what we need to refocus on a project, hone an idea or simply reset. I’ve known several professionals who nap every afternoon in their companies’ quiet rooms. For employees on the autism spectrum, many of whom may struggle with noise sensitivity, this break from the noise can be important or even essential for daily success.
A dedicated quiet workspace is an effective way to create the time and space needed for a sensory reset without risking productivity. Although all employees can benefit from such a space, it is important that it be consistently available to those on the spectrum who may need it more regularly or even require it in their daily routine. Consider using an advanced sign-up sheet for the space, and offer it first to team members who require or most benefit from regular access.
Give flexible work from home days
With the rise of technology, working from home has become more effective and prevalent than ever. Remote workers enjoy the increased flexibility and freedom. But, for people with chronic pain from ailments like MS or fibromyalgia, it often makes the difference in whether they can work or not. Staying as flexible as possible with work from home days lets people with chronic pain lie in bed and answer emails if they must. It lets them work more sporadically throughout the day so they can take time to manage their pain when needed.
Allow service animals and emotional support animals
It may seem intuitive that allowing service animals in the office creates an inclusive environment for workers with sensory impairments like blindness. However, take this accommodation one step further by also allowing emotional support animals. That will make the office environment inclusive to people who struggle with mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.
It might not be practical for the office community at large to be surrounded by multiple support animals at all times. A way to remain inclusive is to allow support animals on projected difficult days (such as the day before an important deadline or presentation) when an employee who struggles with anxiety might need them the most. This can improve morale and imbue those who struggle with anxiety (especially work-related anxiety) with a sense of comfort as they embark on major challenges.
Fill the office with plenty of plants
Indoor plants brighten up any work space, but they’re also an effective tool in improving the physical and mental health of people around them. A 2015 study in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology showed that interacting with plants can reduce both physiological and psychological stress. Certain plants are even known to improve air quality, which can be extremely beneficial for employees with compromised immune systems or breathing difficulties like asthma.
Just ask, and be ready to change
These accommodations — and others like them — are strong starts in creating an inclusive work environment, but many people with disabilities face very individualized struggles and complications. All people experience their disabilities differently, and individual experiences can change over time. People might require different accommodations at different times. This can range from a mental illness with certain triggers such as seasonal depression, to the progression of an illness such as MS. It’s crucial you maintain open and consistent communication with employees to make sure all of their workplace needs, large and small, are being met.
One of the happy side effects of incorporating accommodations into day-to-day operations is that it de-stigmatizes workplace accommodations and "special treatment" for disabled people. I’ve talked to several colleagues in the C-suite who say accommodations of any kind, for anybody who may need them, are likely to improve overall workplace experience, and subsequently, company loyalty and productivity. Properly accommodated employees not only work harder but also feel cared for as their needs are seen, heard and understood without judgment.