Disability inclusion: Seattle companies take steps to include all employees

By Tara Buchan and Dani Carbary June 21, 2023

Tara Buchan and Dani Carbary

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

One in four adults in the United States has some type of disability. Still, disability inclusion is not always part of workplace diversity efforts. Thoughtful accessibility practices help with new hiring opportunities and ensure current coworkers can bring their whole selves to the job.

I recently learned that an employee has a non-apparent disability only after we began discussing accessibility at our workplace. How can our organization engage more of our workforce in these conversations, and how can we make it easier for employees with disabilities to openly share if they choose to do so?

Your organization would benefit from establishing an employee resource group (ERG) focused on disability inclusion. “This group would welcome your employees with disabilities as well as allies and advocates who can come together to share their thoughts,” says Steve Nelson, accessibility/diversity program manager at Alaska Airlines.

To ensure that your employees feel comfortable sharing their disability or accessibility needs, your leaders should have disability inclusion training, which should be proactive, not just held after you hire someone with a disclosed disability. “When leaders have had this training and are open about it with their teams, it opens an accessible line of communication,” Nelson says. “It may take time to fully earn the trust of the employees, so don’t rush the process. Just lead with empathy and give your employees space.”

We are creating pay equity policies at our workplace. How are folks with disabilities affected by the wage gap, and what should I consider in our upcoming policies to help close these gaps?

Ensuring everyone starts at a fair and equitable base pay is a critical first step, and creating structured career paths should always factor into your plans. “We find pay disparity when employees with disabilities get ‘stuck’ in the pipeline,” Nelson says. “Get to know how your employees learn and work, and be willing to provide them all with equal access to development opportunities.”

That can also cultivate opportunities for advancement.

“Disability inclusion should be a person-centered approach and one that’s intentional from the beginning,” says Mike Hatzenbeler, CEO of Provail, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works with children and adults with disabilities. “Helping people identify their strengths, matching those strengths to a role, and consistently supporting them in their work will allow individuals to achieve success and provide structural support to move up the talent pipeline.”

Our company continues to offer remote work, but return-to-office policies are also going into effect. How can we ensure remote work is as accessible as possible for those with disabilities, and provide a sense of belonging for all employees regardless of their remote or in-office status?

Remote work can open up the opportunity for an expanded employee population, but with a hybrid office, it is critical to ensure there is equitable treatment regardless of how and where people do their job.

Being in-office allows for unplanned conversations regarding professional development, project opportunities, and potential rewards. Establish core collaboration hours so all employees can reasonably and equitably connect with colleagues. If one or a few employees join a meeting virtually, consider having all employees join virtually.

Nelson urges managers to not force   to turn on their cameras, because it may trigger anxiety for certain people with disabilities.

“Managers should ask that employees not talk over each other in meetings, but use the hand-raise function or take turns. Don’t force anyone to speak because some individuals will be more comfortable if they can share their thoughts through the chat or a private email,” he adds. “Additionally, always set the auto-captioning program to ‘on.’ This could support employees who may need to mute or lower their volume because of overstimulation.”

TARA BUCHAN and DANI CARBARY founded TADA Partners and lead Collabor8 Employer Collective, a cohort of employer organizations focused on infusing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging into all eight stages of an employee’s life cycle by sharing both success stories and learning lessons.

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