Valuing Diversity = Valuing Disability

As an employer and professional with hidden disabilities, I am used to seeing many HR articles about, and have been a part of inclusionary business strategies towards recognizing, valuing and working with diversity in the workplace. For this post, I want to write about relatively new business efforts towards creating more inclusive workplaces for persons with disabilities, and offer some points on what this does and does not mean.

Until recently, I found few professional articles on the topic of recognizing that there existed a large minority of the workforce who have disabilities and that diversity inclusion efforts should logically direct management to undertake efforts to ensure they are represented at all levels of the organization as a distinct workforce minority. As the country moves towards full employment, and employers are looking at filling more positions with ?non-traditional” workers, that trend is starting to change.

So, now that people with disabilities are viewed as an official ?workplace minority,? what can we find concrete corporate and business community efforts at leveraging increasing recognition and inclusion of their employees with disabilities as a distinct category of workers in their diversity efforts?

Before getting to that, it is important to realize, that although businesses may now see us as an official workforce minority, people with disabilities do not have full protection under the Civil Rights Act as a recognized minority class. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 protects certain civil rights of people with disabilities, but is not a civil rights law.

Since the ADAAA passage and with increasing employer need to source, recruit and hire candidates outside of their typical profiles, numerous companies have adopted Diversity Management Teams, or Affinity Groups to incorporate disability as a distinct, diverse population

Corporations who have at least 4% of their workforce comprised of persons with disabilities, participate in DiversityInc?s annual Disability Equality Index. The Index focuses on 5 critical practices that increase inclusion and provide a culture where self-disclosure is not a career-ending experience. This link shows the top 50 companies to work for where people with disabilities are valuable contributors recognized as equal to their non-disabled peers.

But unfortunately, DiversityInc?s list shows that these companies are the exception and not the rule, as most businesses continue to hold back on disability inclusion as a natural part of their business strategy. The main, ongoing problem as I see it, is that many companies have unexpressed fears about how to work with an employee who has a hidden or non-apparent disability (LD, ADHD, bipolar disorder) than those who have visible conditions. 

So, what are we to do? Well, there are some steps we can undertake to change the impression and messaging to create Disability Confidence, a term that encompasses the concept of Diversity, but not from the management disability perspective. Instead, it means a shift of emphasis so to a Valuing Diversity perspective- there is a difference. 

Valuing Diversity is not a new term, in fact it came about before the concept of Managing Diversity. Valuing Diversity is a strategy where management and HR look at the contributions of all persons who are working in a given workplace, and then engaging with them from a humanistic standpoint. Once the workplace takes out any stigma associated with a particular protected minority class, one then becomes aware that everyone is there for the same reasons  ? to contribute! 

I did my Master?s Thesis on this in 1992, it was on valuing diversity in the workplace, and found that a few companies were embracing it back then. Unfortunately, none of the companies or any research led me to where there was a focus on disability. The big picture of this concept as it relates to disability inclusion and diversity, is that it places an emphasis on developing ways to establish human and mutual respect for the person  ? no matter who they are. You learn to overlook personal bias and instead focus or celebrate the fact that we all have unique characteristics and possess unique strengths that bring us together in work and life to solve problems. 

Diversity Management Teams usually look at diversity from a strictly business standpoint. It is an organized method for getting people to work together toward company goals and objectives. There is normally comprehensive planning, tied to profits and performance. And yes, while profit and performance is important, it becomes much different in its message when integrating it by valuing diversity.

Another example of how workplace civil rights laws do not cover individuals with disabilities, is that they are excluded from Affirmative Action (AA) protections.  Affirmative Action legislation is grounded in moral and social responsibility and, as such, is tied to legal obligations contained in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Companies bound by AA, must keep records of recruitment, hiring, promotions, training, and terminations. There are goals set with companies to hire certain individuals based on the protected classes of minorities under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Still, just like with any other labor or workplace law, the applicant must be qualified to do the job they seek. The AA focus has been devoted to increasing the under-representation of protected classes in jobs they were excluded from in the past based on discriminatory hiring practices, which still continues today. 

People with disabilities do not have full protections as an unrecognized class under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so therefore are not included in these goals. This is one reason why the ADAAA was amended and passed again in 2008 and became a stronger, more effective law that went into effect January, 1, 2009. As wonderful as that update was and is, there are still no inclusion in Affirmative Action, as people with disabilities are not given the same classification as minorities under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

However, individuals with disabilities can be granted credits when they apply for governmental jobs (unlike private employers), but just like any other candidate applying for the same position, in order to be considered a qualified candidate, must be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation. Even with reasonable accommodations, they must be able to do their job without not presenting an undue hardship to the employer when asking for or using them. 

So, are we valuing the diversity of persons with disabilities? Are we fully including them in the workplace? As a job seeker, when you are interviewing for a job and you disclose that you have a hidden disability, did you later learn that the job you were in the running for went to someone else? Were you a qualified candidate for the job, or was it truly a violation of your protected rights under the ADAAA? How do you really ever know?  Are we really valuing diversity when the employee with a known mental illness becomes the only one not invited to join the rest of the girls to grab a bite in the cafeteria?   

Do you feel comfortable with the risk of disclosing to your boss when you know that promotion you are up for, will require you to do some math? Although you have been doing just fine on your job before disclosing and blending in, there was no problem because you were considered like everyone else. But now, you realize that the learning disability will show up in the new promotion, so should you make sure your boss knows or will you be passed up once they find out you may need an accommodation? What options do you have? You have many workplace rights in today?s world, but not the ease in using them. Our culture emphasized success and being the best, which can create a fear in others when they discover our ?secret? and sometimes it is our own fear that stops us. It is a lack of education and awareness that requires societal change- and we can work together to create this change!

A good starting point for everyone is to education themselves. Learn about what your rights are with the ADAAA. Learn about companies that have functioning, successful Affinity Groups, and that pride themselves in hiring individuals with disabilities. Train yourself by taking Diversity Classes. You can find these classes online, in colleges, at libraries, workshops, associations, diversity meet up groups, just to name a few. The more open you are to others the more open others will be to you. Learn more about your disability, the more educated you are the more you can help advocate for yourself.We are all one of a kind as people with disabilities.

Think about every social justice and civil rights groups before us, think about what Martin Luther King did, think about the Women?s Movement, and think about how strong the LGBTQIA movement is though they are also still trying to gain workers? rights. They have made significant gains because of the millions of people who joined together on behalf of each other to get same sex marriage laws passed. 

People with hidden disabilities gain strength by educating ourselves, by knowing ourselves, by being the best employee any employer would want through dedication and honesty, by performing our duties as expected, and understanding that others have surely had hard times as well. We belong to the world?s largest population of unrecognized minorities and we are not alone. 

Go out and get some training, get to know all kinds of people, and appreciate their heritage, their backgrounds, their race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender difference, religion, age, and disability. You will stand out as a singular person who knows how to treat people in the workplace. When you yourself respect, are kind, are authentic to others, they in kind will be that way to you. You will be the one who Values Diversity and knows how to survive in the 21st Century Workplace.

Suggested Books For You:

The Most Important Asset: Valuing Human Capital
1st Edition by Robert J. Greene


Same But Different
by Holly Robinson Peete, RJ Peete, Ryan Elizabeth Peete


Don’t Cramp My Style
by Simon Cramp


Hidden Inequalities in the Workplace: A Guide to the Current Challenges, Issues and Business Solutions (Palgrave Explorations in Workplace Stigma) 1st ed. 2018 Edition by Valerie Caven (Editor), Stefanos Nachmias (Editor)

Author: Justin Coller