As the president of a company that is highly dependent upon the unique perspective and specific skills that result when people live with one or more types of disabilities, making reasonable accommodations is a part of my everyday work life. At WeCo, accommodation is viewed as part of how we do business, rather than a way of providing special dispensation to someone who works for us.
The result of the “business as usual” view we take of what is formally and legally described as “reasonable accommodation” has resulted in a work environment that is far different, and much more productive and positive than any I’ve encountered in my past employment, which includes large corporation, small business, non-profit and government settings. This is because the employees I’ve managed who live with disabilities possess an experiential knowledge and an unique outlook that I don’t find in their non-disabled peers.
When I considered this, I found that it came down to 5 key elements, that can also be translated into unique benefits, that results in creating a positive culture, when you include people living with disabilities into your workforce:
1. Everyone knows they belong:
Work environments which place the skills of the individual at a higher level of importance than the package the person arrives in, send a loud message of inclusion to all employees, regardless of their abilities. At WeCo it’s very common for new employees, in particular, to tell us that they feel valued for what they bring to the table, and are not excluded by how they pull up to it or by the device that enabled them to enter the office door. Watching others receive the same treatment puts everyone at ease, knowing that the workplace is a safe place for all where everyone counts and each person is valued.
But this is rare in many workplaces, especially in the experiences of many people living with disabilities. When I asked WeCo’s PR Director, Toni Grundstrom, about the challenges she faced finding a position worthy of her marketing degree, prior to coming to WeCo, she explained, “You walk into the conference room, I roll into the conference room. That’s the only difference between us. There are very few professional organizations out there that understand that.”
2. You develop a culture of trust:
One of the most difficult adjustments for some of our new staff members and Certified Test Consultants at WeCo to make is understanding that they don’t have to hide their disability in our workplace. Periodically, we experience tearful interviews and meetings, as people begin to fully grasp that what we are interested in is how they contribute to our team, and not how they move, talk or look. This atmosphere of acceptance creates a culture that, in my estimation, is one of the most trusting and relaxed, I’ve ever witnessed in a professional environment.
In my past professional experience, organizations who resist making accommodations which could enable employees to contribute to
a productive workplace, are often more likely to have a culture of distrust. Working in an environment where people are not treated equally, or are devalued in someway, fosters an unspoken sense of fear that ”I might be next.” If your employees see a qualified applicant, in a wheel chair, for example, who is not selected for a role on your team because “it’s too hard to figure out what they need,” it makes them wonder how you will treat them if they have an accident or illness. There is no instrument quite as efficient at killing trust, as fear.
3. Problem-solving and innovation gets ramped-up:
When I began working on accessible communication initiatives for the State of Minnesota, I had no idea how difficult it was for people living with certain types of disabilities to receive information, travel and perform tasks many of us take for granted, like checking a bank balance online or using a bathroom at an outdated wayside rest area. At the same time, I was also floored by the high-level ability many of these individuals had to create their own innovative solutions and problem-solve.
An example I often point to when training clients is the sheer volume of videos on YouTube containing instructions on how to build your own foot mouse. ( A device used to move a cursor on a computer screen when someone is not able to use a conventional handheld mouse.) I encourage you to search foot mouse “how to” videos and see for yourself the amazing innovation people have in just this one area.
One of the reasons that WeCo has succeeded in a totally uncharted business field, with few start-up capitol options, is quite simply because our staff and board is made up of individuals who are extremely skilled at finding a way, no matter what is in front of them. As the president of a growing company, I have come to rely upon this high-level of innovation on a daily basis. Many of our staff and board members who live with disabilities have this skill in spades and, once you have it on your team, you’ll never want to be without it.
4. The difference between a hurdle and an inconvenience is more apparent:
When I look back on my professional life and consider what the teams I managed in the past viewed as an obstacle, I am amazed by what we allowed to stop us or deemed was a significant hurdle to success. Employees who live with disabilities can be excellent at helping everyone around them in the workplace realize that most issues and situations are truly, just an inconvenience. It’s going to take longer than expected? I have to do the report over? We need to find a new supplier? Try complaining about this to an employee with a sight-related disability when a bus driver dropped her off 3 blocks away from her house in the midst of a serious snow storm last night. (True life example.) I think she’d rather rewrite your report than take that bus trip again.
5. Everyone is called upon to grow:
I’m not saying that having people who live with disabilities on your staff is going to turn the office bully into a model employee. What I am saying is that at WeCo, we’ve watched both client and staff member’s personal interactions change, when they work with someone who lives with a visible disability, for the very first time. They move through an emotional cycle beginning with fear, then discomfort and finally, settling into something I can only describe as quiet joy as they realize that they have been accepted by the person with which they’re working.
Yes, you read that right, they realize that they have been accepted by the person living with the disability. I believe that the fear people can feel surrounding someone’s disability doesn’t come from their thinking that the disabled person doesn’t fit in to their world, but rather that they themselves don’t know how to fit into the world of the individual living with a disability. Not knowing what to say (“She’s blind…can I use the word ‘see’ in front of her?”) or what to do, (“He’s really struggling with that door…should I ask him if he needs help?”) can make a person feel like they a stranger in a foreign county and aren’t certain of the customs.
When work environments have the expectation of inclusion for everyone in their workplaces, regardless of ability or disability, they are building a culture in which each individual is called upon to grow and be more than they were when they entered the door.