How to Talk About Disability Diversity in the Workplace Great leaders choose to be the first to initiate conversations on neurodiversity in their businesses.

By Laura Whitaker

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As a business leader, would you prefer to be first or forced?

I believe businesses have a unique opportunity to be first to view diversity through a deeper lens in the workplace, extending it beyond skin color or gender.

One in four Americans has a disability; it is the largest minority group, and just one accident or illness can cause someone to become a part of it. In an age where inclusion should be considered an asset to businesses, 87% of disabled adults can and want to work, but they are unemployed.

And yet, our jobs often determine and shape our identity. When you go to a dinner party or meet someone new, what is the most common question you receive? Most likely, "What do you do for a living?" Why? Because our jobs reveal a lot about who we are. Most adults with disabilities are unable to answer this question.

I welcome you to join me in viewing diversity through a deeper lens in the workplace, extending it beyond ethnicity, gender, age, status or disability. And imagine a world where all people have the opportunity to showcase their abilities, rather than be constrained by their disabilities or what makes them different. But what if we didn't have to imagine this world?

Neurodiversity is defined as the "inclusion in a group, organization, etc. of people with different types of brain functioning." I love this definition from Merriam-Webster because the emphasized and first word used is inclusion. Not the word different, brain functioning, disability, etc. The emphasis is always on the positive, from definition to the workplace. Reframing our efforts and vocabulary offers more people of all abilities the opportunity for success in the workplace and a meaningful place in our communities.

As executive director of a nonprofit in Georgia, I aim to create transformative experiences for people with disabilities and their families, changing communities for the better. We believe that every single person should have the opportunity to work — and that everyone should have a job that magnifies his or her abilities. Yes, including those commonly overlooked by employers. We believe this begins by initiating and normalizing conversations around neurodiversity in the workplace.

Related: 5 Ways to Ensure You Have True Diversity Within Your Business

Start the conversation — be the first

The conversation around diversity and inclusion is only becoming more prevalent in the world today. We have a choice to either be first or forced to address this issue. Businesses that embrace true diversity in their workplace create a more cohesive and collaborative environment. But it takes work. It takes stepping outside of the mindset of, "We have always done it this way, and it seems to work pretty well." What if we stopped settling for pretty good? Having an open mind to hiring people of all abilities can not only set your business apart, but it can also positively transform your employees and bottom line.

Neurodiversity is a concept that means people are naturally diverse learners and workers; every single person thinks differently. This diverse thinking can increase the creativity, innovation and cultivation in the workplace. I have noticed that the majority of the time, business leaders have the desire to make their work environment more diverse, but the challenge is figuring out how. It is as simple as being the first to start the conversation.

Related: Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices for Your Workforce

Create moments of engagement

Many successful business leaders bring their employees to volunteer at our organization with people of all abilities. Most, if not all, come back to me and remark that through that experience, their employees become more joyful and proud to work for their company. The more connected employees feel, the more productive they will be, which, in turn, helps the bottom line.

I have the privilege of working with people of different backgrounds, race, gender, disabilities and socioeconomic status ... just to name a few. As a nonprofit leader, being exposed to a diverse work environment has allowed our organization to skyrocket. More importantly, working in a diverse team has taught our employees how to interact with people who may look or think differently than they do. Not knowing how to interact with people of all abilities creates a barrier to their incorporation within the community and the workforce.

When asked to provide a few tips to help individuals create a genuine interaction with people of all abilities, here is what they offered:

  • Look the person in the eyes. Approach this person as you would anyone else.
  • Ask the person a question. You will be surprised how far a simple question can take you.
  • Use people-first language. Refer to him or her as a "person with a disability" rather than "the disabled."
  • Make a connection. Find something in common. We all crave human connection.

Shift the paradigm

What would the world look like if we were to get rid of the stigma? Embracing neurodiversity can give people of all abilities an advantage by recognizing their strengths. Fortune 500 companies including SAP, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and Microsoft are already making the shift by reshaping their HR processes. According to Harvard Business Review, these companies are noticing productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities and increased employee engagement.

There are also specific programs that provide tangible training and next steps to ensure your organization is committed to increased inclusion and diversity in the workplace. We can either be the first to start the conversation, or we will one day be forced to have the conversation. Which approach will you take?

Related: Is an Inclusive Workforce Still a Distant Dream?

Laura Whitaker

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Executive Director

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