I wrote a version of this for my workplace in celebration of the ADA turning 30 and thought others may be interested in my learning as a disability inclusion project officer within human resources…(all views are my own)
When the pandemic hit the globe in early 2020, many organizations and educational institutions were forced to shift to remote work and learning within a matter of weeks. Some managed to do this quite smoothly, others are still figuring it out months later. This shift to flexible working is something disabled people know well. (I use the term “disabled people” intentionally to highlight the social model of disability. ”People with disabilities” is also widely used.) We often have to adjust and modify our work environments quickly, especially when workspaces are often not designed for us.
This year, we mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While this Act remains a vital piece of legislation that has paved the way for fair treatment of people with disabilities in the workplace, it is framed as a reactive law, one that is based in a bio-medical frame of assistance. It uses the language of impairment and limitation, and albeit extremely useful, it does not give us the whole story of what is necessary.
Here are four ways that I think are necessary to create dialogue around disability beyond legal definitions, allowing us to work towards more inclusive workspaces.
- Accept that mistakes happen and use them to create a space for open and honest dialogue.
Too many organizations make the assumption that disability inclusion is already embedded in their culture; they are not intentional about embracing people’s different and unique lived experiences. This belief can stifle real growth needed to create inclusion, preventing good dialogue from taking place since people are worried about saying the wrong thing. This is especially true when it comes to talking about disability. Disability is often seen as “wrong”—we must feel sorry for people with disabilities. This stops conversations from happening because of our fear of isolating and offending. When we instead invite open and honest dialogue, and give permission to fail, we focus on how to respond when mistakes are made. This is how culture change happens.
- Invite stories.
When we control own social narrative, we become empowered to take control of our own story. Through programming and events, virtual campaigns, and everyday sound bites from family and friends, we begin to see people with disabilities as whole beings. We can move away from a place of deficits, and instead see opportunities for growth and understanding. Yet, stories can only be shared when it feels comfortable to do so, when there is no fear of being treated differently or less than – and to do this we must first normalize disability in all its incarnations.
Disability is one of the most flexible identities in the world. Any one of us could suddenly become disabled. I was born with several chronic health issues that will forever cause me discomfort – but I didn’t identify as disabled until about 15 years ago because I did not think the term applied to me. When I started to lose my hearing eight years ago, although I already felt aligned with a disability identity, I was becoming more disabled by my environment. The world was not set up to accommodate hard of hearing and d/Deaf people. I often challenge people to be uncomfortable when they think of disability. Disability is the most common, marginalized identity in the world, especially when you factor in mental health fluctuations. Since it affects such a large portion of our world, how is it that we find it difficult to normalize?
- It is about everyone.
While I would love to just wave a magic wand, this work cannot be achieved by one team or in a silo. This work has to be embedded in every aspect of an organization, it cannot be housed solely in human resources but needs to be strategically implemented in every departmental plan and objective. Everyone should consider disability inclusion practices into their work – and only then will real change occur.
The road towards disability inclusion is long, and as the ADA turns thirty, we see how limited this law is. It has language that still portrays disabled people as limited beings, in need of charity. If we see this Act as the beginning, we look to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as the future. We can start to envision a world in which flexibility, and accessible policies, structures, and design become common practice.
The UN Convention, which was ratified in 2008, is one of the most progressive documents written on disability rights in the world. It shifts us away from charity models and towards a world that views people with disabilities as rights holders with the ability to make informed decisions about their lives. It allows us to normalize disability, and when we do this, we see all the possibilities. It opens up higher productivity and, most importantly, it creates the opportunity for all of us to bring our whole selves to the workplace.