I have a severe hearing disability. While I have persevered, coped and learned to drum up enough courage to succeed, every day is a struggle. For those who live with a disability, you know what I mean. We don’t ask for sympathy. We just ask for understanding and a little support when we need it.
There are countless types of disabilities, the majority are considered to be “invisible“. They’re not immediately noticeable by others. On the flip side, a visible disability is one that we notice immediately. Examples include people who use a wheelchair, not having a limb, use a mobility aid, use the services of a guide dog, etc… A clear analogy to describe invisible and visible disabilities is an iceberg. What you can see is the part of the iceberg that is above the water (i.e. visible disability) and what you can’t see is below the water (i.e. invisible disability).
We will never be fully versed and educated on every single disability that exists. It’s impossible. The good news is many of the more common invisible disabilities are starting to be topics of conversation within the workplace. A prime example is mental health. We are educating ourselves on what mental health is and how we can help employees who suffer from it. I would say that as a society we are still uncomfortable talking about mental health and dealing with it in the workplace. However, we’re making positive strides and that’s a good thing.
I have done many talks on topics relating to diversity and inclusion, and employing people with disabilities. The latter is a very interesting area of conversation because most people who listen to me speak provide me with feedback that relates to “learning something new that they never knew before”. Notably, people are surprised by the huge gap that exists in employment rates between people with a disability and those without.
There are approximately 1 billion people (15% of the population) on planet Earth that live with a disability, and of those who are able to work (i.e. of legal employment age, want to work and are able to work) only 17.5% of them do so compared to approximately 65% of those who do not have a disability. That’s a huge gap. Further research that I have done suggests that employing people with disabilities isn’t only the right thing to do but it’s good for business. Employees with disabilities have a higher retention rate (72%), are better performers (90%), and have better attendance (86%). These 3 statistics are just a couple of many, but can you imagine the financial impact? What if you could improve organizational performance by just 5%? What if you could reduce your absenteeism by 10%? What if you could improve your retention rate of top performers by 10%? Think of the impact on your costs of doing business and your productivity? The impact could be HUGE — small businesses to multi-nationals.
So What’s The Problem?
We have a global employee engagement crisis, a talent attraction crisis, and talent retention crisis. The world of talent (or HR) falls into 3 categories; talent attraction, talent engagement and talent retention. They’re tightly interconnected, which means no one single solution on its own will fix your problems. However, I do know that given the current state of work we need to look at other sources of talent and start tapping into them, especially if the business case is clear that doing so (e.g. people with disabilities) will result in a more successful business.
So again, why can’t we just hire more people with disabilities? There are 1 billion of us living on this planet, which is a massive group that represents approximately $8 trillion in spending power.
Here Are A Few Thoughts
My first thought is that there’s a misconception that accommodation is very expensive. For the majority of cases, this is completely untrue. The majority of workplace accommodations cost less than a couple of hundred bucks. Let’s use me as an example. I have a severe hearing loss. The most impactful accommodations that I require are people to face me when speaking so I can read their lips, co-workers being open to providing me with their meeting notes (or even spending a couple of minutes after meetings to ensure I captured all of the important items) and co-workers being patient with me if I ask to repeat themselves, particularly in group conversations. That’s it. Would that cost a lot of money? No.
My second thought is our hiring practices are extremely subjective and full of bias. I am saying this very nicely but regardless of what you believe it’s 100% true. So long as we continue to use traditional methods of recruiting (screening resumes and conducting interviews) this will always be a problem. A classic example is interviewing a candidate who has a speech impediment for a customer success position. The candidate displays their impediment in the interview and the immediate assessment is, “we can’t have a person like this working with our customers”. However, this perspective fails to recognize that we live in a world where we use multiple communication channels with our customers (chat, email, phone, in-person, Q&A, etc…), and so long as the individual provides customers with stellar service it doesn’t matter if they have a speech impediment. Taking it one step further, if you took the time to ask the candidate’s previous and current customers how effective they are at providing customer service you may gain a more accurate picture.
My third thought is people don’t know what they don’t know. I have always believed that people are ignorant, not by choice, but by their experience. I can’t blame a co-worker if they don’t know how to help me if they have never associated with someone who is hard of hearing. I don’t hold this against them. I educate them. Having knowledge is power and can be liberating for my co-worker. People still struggle with asking questions of co-workers because they often fear to say and ask the wrong thing. So, they don’t say anything and the accommodation never happens. The only way we can improve our abilities to work with and support people with disabilities in the workplace is by asking questions and educating ourselves. Don’t be afraid to ask the basic question, “please tell me how I can help you succeed”. You may be surprised.
My fourth thought is that HR practitioners and recruiters don’t truly understand the business impact hiring people with disabilities has. I described it earlier in this post and you can Google it to find more information. However, the community at large are not trained to be business thinkers. We’re trained to be tactical practitioners – perhaps if we had a better understanding of the business implications to what we do on a day-to-day basis we may be more motivated to find a solution and figure this out. I know that this 4th thought may be perceived as controversial but through my experience, it has been a consistent observation and trend.
We have a huge opportunity to tap into a relatively untapped talent pool of highly loyal, dedicated, educated and successful people. I openly welcome you to share your comments with me, ask questions and engage in conversation with your networks.
This is amazing Jeff. I completely agree with you in the regards of invisible disabilities. As someone who has a passion for HR and a learning disability this impacts my day to day and my search for employment. As you stated as an individual we know what we need to ensure that we succeed such as a shift in tasks more related to our strengths or documents recapping meetings. Wonderful to hear your perspective.