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Oct. 28, 2021

Q&A with Maria Pinkelton: What Leaders Need to Know About Accommodations

The month of October is designated as National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) to educate the public about the issues faced by people with disabilities in pursuing, obtaining, and keeping employment. In this month, Nelson Mullins is proud to celebrate and tell stories about the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities.

Employers and leadership should be thinking about accommodations from the outset of any new venture. Kat Taylor, Firm Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, spoke with Maria Pinkelton, Public Relations Director at the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, about what leaders should know when it comes to supporting and accommodating employees and colleagues with disabilities. 

There are many types of disabilities; as leaders, often we may not recognize the need to provide support. Can you tell us how employers can best support their team members with disabilities? 

Remember that one size does not fit all. Accommodations will depend on the individual’s needs, and these staff members know what is required for them to be successful in the job. Most work accommodations are low in cost with the typical rate being below $500. Needed supports can range from speech recognition software to the ability for the employee to take breaks when needed. Employers should take the time to collaborate with employees and solidify what specific supports will work best for them.

As employers regularly schedule time for routine employee evaluations, the same opportunity to touch base and reflect should be standard for employees with disabilities. Communication between employees and employers is a key component to a successful relationship. Employers will also see great benefit in empowering managers to negotiate and fund accommodations within their own departments and teams rather than centralizing these functions in corporate HR offices. 

What supports exist for employers who are looking to hire people with disabilities? 

There are several agencies that assist companies in the recruitment, interviewing, and retention of employees with disabilities. The Employee and Resource Network of Disability Inclusion (EARN) is a free federally funded program that helps employers maximize the benefits of disability diversity by educating public- and private-sector companies on ways to create inclusive workplace cultures. A program of the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), their scope of expertise includes hiring, retaining, and advancing employees with disabilities. EARN offers a wide range of training resources including self-paced online courses. They can be found online at www.askearn.org.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is also a free resource provided by ODEP that provides expert and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues. They provide one-on-one practical guidance and technical assistance on job accommodation solutions, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and related legislation, and self-employment and entrepreneurship options for people with disabilities. This individualized approach to accommodations solutions means successful employment outcomes for companies that utilize their supports. They can be found online at www.askjan.org.

While the resources above are helpful for navigating the particulars of the hiring and accommodations processes, we also understand employers learn well from one another, generating new innovations and energizing commitments to diversity. Check out DisabilityIN, National Organization on Disability, and Inclusively for opportunities to connect with employers leading the way in including people with disabilities in their workforce.

Why should employers seek to hire people with disabilities? 

When companies hire people with disabilities, they gain employees who have proven to be some of the most dedicated and hardworking members of the U.S. workforce. Studies routinely show that staff members with disabilities have fewer absences, higher rates of becoming tenured employees, and near identical job performance ratings as their colleagues without disabilities. People with disabilities are unfortunately almost twice as likely to be unemployed, making this an untapped workforce that is eager to put their passions and talents to work. 

Why it is important for companies to include people with disabilities when they aspire to have a diverse/inclusive/equitable staff? 

It is important for companies to include people with disabilities in their DEI efforts because it allows them to hire and retain staff from the widest talent pool possible. While the number of companies that include people with disabilities in their DEI goals are increasing, the numbers remain low compared to that of other groups targeted in these efforts. As previously stated, when this population is included, organizations achieve a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workforce. They also gain new perspectives, achieve more innovative outcomes, stronger employee performance, and higher profits.

As the nation’s largest minority group, comprising of more than 60 million individuals, when you include people with disabilities you not only expand the diversity of the staff, but you gain customers who see their experiences and values reflected in the goods and services that are developed. Diverse perspectives create innovative goods and services that attract a larger customer base. 

Outside of ADA compliance, what can firms do to ensure they create a sense of belonging for our attorneys and staff members with disabilities as well as members of our team who are caretakers of disabled family members?

Companies can create a sense of belonging for their employees who have disabilities as well as for those employees whose family members are people with disabilities by infusing inclusion into all aspects of their company culture. The inclusive culture should be driven by organizational leadership establishing it as a corporate priority. Staff should have the opportunity to contribute to the creation of this culture through feedback and listening sessions, which will drive home the company’s dedication to inclusion.

External and internal communications channels should take a universal design for learning approach, ensuring all communications are accessible to everyone. Videos should include closed captioning and ASL translation; intranets and public websites should adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards. Human Resource policies should include flexible work schedules, child/family care flexible spending and health savings account options, quality and affordable health insurance, and other benefits that make the lives of all employees easier. Employees who feel that they are supported inside and outside of the office show greater commitment to their jobs and dedication to their companies. 

Are there additional challenges for members of the disability community who also identify as Black, LatinX, Asian, LGBT, and/or a woman? 

Absolutely, because we know multiple identities within multiple marginalized communities can compound barriers. Organizations often have staff who are members of more than one historically marginalized group. Identifying as a person with a disability would place you into one of these groups. Staff who are members of groups based on gender, nationality, age, religion, or sexual orientation may also identify as a person with a disability. The complex way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and ableism) combine or intersect, especially in the experiences of these individuals, is known as intersectionality. 

As is the case with other socio-demographic identities, people with disabilities are not a monolithic group, and their lives, opinions, and experiences are different. It’s important that leadership doesn’t make assumptions about these employees based on these categories. Employers must understand that these multiple identities produce people with unique gifts, talents, and viewpoints that can serve as a valuable resource to the company.