Requesting workplace adjustments, flexible working arrangements, or modified equipment in the workplace is a tough gig. It is even more difficult for those who are the only disabled person on their team or in their workplace – that is, almost all disabled people.
Experiences of the Disability Leadership Institute show that disability leaders requests for workplace adjustments are usually the minimum required by the person to be able to do their job effectively, yet these minimum requirements are often refused. They are expected to try harder or to act like they are not disabled people.
Most disabled people do not openly identify as disabled. They are in workplaces, but the risks faced by openly identifying are too high and are usually avoided at all costs. Openly identifying is a last resort taken when workplace adjustments are unable to be avoided. For many, openly identifying sounds the death knell for their career or their employment.
Diversity specialists talk about critical mass, that point when the numbers of a minority trigger cultural change. When working on gender diversity, a 30 percent presence of women in a workplace, or on a board, is considered critical mass. There are very few workplaces where disabled people are more than 30 percent, there are very few that have more than 10 percent.
Despite being around 20 percent of the population, it is more common for a disabled person to be the only member of their team, or their branch, or their organisation. Critical mass and the culture change triggered by it are a long way from reality.
More commonly, these highly isolated disabled people are expected to change culture from within, often from a low position in the hierarchy, and often without adequate workplace adjustments. For example, in many public sectors achieving a 3 percent presence of disabled people has become a talking point, a moment of pride for the agencies concerned. In context, 3 percent is better than just over 1 percent, which is the long-term level for most public sectors, but it is still well short of the 20 percent presence of disability in the wider population and there is no indication of when this might be achieved.
Neither 1 percent nor 3 percent will achieve critical mass, neither level represents more than a token presence of disability.
Disability Leadership Institute members report becoming full time advocates for workplace adjustments, while also experiencing the higher levels of bullying and harassment that accompany most workplaces. Their days are focused on changing workplace culture when they should be focused on work.
Employers want to tick the disability diversity box yet remain wholly unprepared for what that means. The result is a continuing failure to provide safe workplaces where inclusive culture and workplace modifications are business as usual. Rather, inclusion and modifications remain misunderstood, resisted, and refused, and disabled people continue to pour time and energy into changing their workplaces instead of being able to join them.
Until 20 percent moves closer, or becomes reality, true inclusion will remain elusive.
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Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person