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Disability and Leadership: How to Meet the Needs of a Divergent Workforce Three strategies leaders can adopt to improve the work experience for those with diverse abilities.

By Nancy Solari Edited by Micah Zimmerman

Key Takeaways

  • Disabled business leaders may have the edge in meeting workers of diverse abilities where they are to improve productivity and retain the best employees.
  • Business Leaders have an opportunity to attract and retain creative thinkers by anticipating the challenges of a divergent workforce.
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Mental health, well-being and stress management will rise to priority status as workers demand a work-life balance. This is good news for disabled employees, but how will business leaders rise to meet this need? Executives will work harder than ever to create a more inclusive, welcoming, and accommodating environment to attract and retain these creative and productive workers. Learning to listen, communicate effectively and make changes in how teams work together can go a long way in creating an environment where everyone feels safe and respected.

Rather than a "sink or swim" approach, leadership can meet workers where they are. This is where a business leader with a limitation can use intuition, see areas for improvement and change the dynamic in the workplace so that needs are understood and met. Business leaders should focus on three main areas to meet the needs of a divergent workforce.

1. Empathy

When a worker with a limitation applies for a job in the business world, they often fear the staff will not accept them. They are often worried they will not be heard if they ask for an accommodation. They may be concerned that what seems easy for everyone else will be difficult — or impossible — for them. Empathy is the quality of compassion that allows us to feel what it might be like to be in someone else's shoes. It is the action-oriented part of compassion.

It's not about the number of divergent employees a company has on the roster; it's about the employee work experience. Executives can show they are aware of the unique needs of the staff and are willing to meet those needs. Managing with empathy means understanding that someone in the office or on the other end of a remote call might have a disability or a limitation they are unwilling to share. It means taking the time to get to know the staff member on a more personal level and responding to their needs in a meaningful, timely way.

Related: Why Empathetic Leadership Is More Important Than Ever

Being open about diverse abilities begins with the company website, the company's reputation on the web and the interview process. From the beginning, a potential candidate with a limitation can tell whether a company will be open to discussing their needs, the accommodations that might be required, and the way a limitation might change aspects of the work experience. A leader with a disability intuitively asks the right questions. Does a new employee need to communicate differently than other employees? What about physically navigating the building? How can the team best work with a staff member's condition?

For executives without disabilities, learning to be open and accepting of workers with limitations, striving to communicate more effectively and helping staff members feel safe will benefit not only disabled workers but will also improve the work experience for everyone.

As an executive, you may feel uncomfortable asking questions or looking for feedback from disabled employees. The truth is that empathy is as uncomplicated as being a good listener, a good observer and a good mentor. When you create a culture that celebrates workers' contributions with limitations, they may open up about their needs. An employee with dyslexia might need a team member to enter data on an excel sheet. A staff member with PTSD might have to schedule telehealth visits on breaks. If these workers are hiding their needs from you, the cost can be overwhelming stress for them. The company's stakes are also high: rising turnover, absenteeism and low productivity.

Related: 5 Ways Employees With Disabilities Help Maximize a Company's Growth

2. Accessibility

A business leader with a disability has the edge when it comes to creating an environment that is equally accessible for everyone. Chances are that a wheelchair-bound executive has circled the parking lot looking for a ramp or dealt with oncoming traffic in a parking garage attempting to make it to the elevator. A legally blind business leader has experienced more than a few meetings where important information was presented only on PowerPoint. If you are an executive without a disability, you may have never considered how many potential candidates might have found your building or information inaccessible; they may have made it to the parking lot, quietly leaving without pointing out how their lack of access left them feeling helpless and excluded.

A leader with a limitation will look at the corporate space from a perspective of challenge. A disabled executive will ask, "What hurdles will a disabled person meet attempting to work here?

Do your meeting spaces accommodate divergent needs? Ramps, elevators, the width of doors and aisles between desks, lighting and closed-captioning are just the beginning. If an employee with anxiety issues needs a peaceful place to calm down, or if a worker needs to keep moving to improve chronic pain, is there a place for them to go? What about transportation? Could the company offer a car service or a monthly stipend to cover a ride share?

However, it isn't just about disabled staff. The need for accommodations can arise at any time. Workers without disabilities can break limbs, have painful surgeries, be wheelchair-bound or use crutches. Leaders can anticipate how the workspace might become a burden for staff and make adjustments.

Beyond the physical environment, corporate heads can embrace technology to assist divergent employees in reaching their potential. Technology has moved beyond closed captioning and voice accessibility. Consider how you can make technology more accessible for your staff. A simple solution might be making transcriptions of meetings. These could be emailed out to staff, including those who are hearing impaired.

Some apps allow people to take pictures and have documents read to them. There are apps that magnify text for those with impaired vision. Young engineers are working with AI to create more effective communication between the hearing impaired and people without that limitation. Executives can fund training and innovations that meet employees' needs. Both staff and business leaders will be challenged to find different ways of doing things, working together to find solutions so that everyone can be more productive. Simply delivering material and information in a variety of ways will enable everyone to have better access.

Related: Employers Need Workers. Now They're Realizing The Untapped Talent of These People.

3. Team building

Even if business leaders grow in their understanding of divergent staff, the next step is even more critical: Management can bring employees together to learn from one another. If staff members hide in cubicles or a remote office without fellowship, mutual understanding can't occur. One of the most innovative ways to find common ground in the workplace is to use team-building exercises.

What if the office meeting wasn't just the usual grind? What if part of that time was spent on team building? This can be done online or in the office. A manager can help staff clarify the team and individual goals. Employees can share their hopes or their vision for their lives. Leaders can go around the room, asking the same question, such as, "What are you most proud of?"

Another option is to bring in a corporate trainer to build synergy. This can be done across departmental lines to bring a fresh perspective. Trainers may give the teams "assignments," such as a project to complete, a problem that needs solving, or a set of tasks that force them to rely on each other and pull their own weight. Members of the team are pushed out of their comfort zone. They learn how to accommodate diverse abilities in their group using resourcefulness, recognizing strengths and weaknesses, and filling in the gaps when needed.

A corporate retreat is a chance to get workers out of the office and into an environment where they can open up and share things they wouldn't ordinarily reveal in an office setting. Staff members can relax, share their fears, and get vulnerable. Whether the retreat lasts a couple of days or a week, they can get to know each other. After a retreat, employees often feel they have gained trust, respect, and a sense of purpose where they work. They may feel they have a better grip on leveraging their team and workplace's diverse abilities.

Final thoughts

An executive with a disability may have the edge in anticipating the needs of staff members with diverse abilities; however, leaders without limitations can find ways to maximize the potential in all staff members by making empathy, accessibility, and team-building a part of the corporate culture. Celebrating your team's unique skills while working to meet their individual needs will create the kind of environment where the most talented candidates will thrive.

Nancy Solari

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of Living Full Out

Nancy Solari is an accomplished CEO, business and life coach, writer and motivational speaker. As host of the national radio show 'Living Full Out with Nancy Solari,' she shares her tools for success with audiences and organizations all around the country.

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