A common topic of discussion amongst disability leaders is workplace adjustments – one of the most common reasons that people leave sought after positions.
Workplace adjustments range from appropriate furniture and software, to flexible working conditions including reduced hours and working remotely. Workplace adjustments and inclusion go hand in hand; they need to work in concert to ensure the right conditions exist to sustain employment.
The Disability Leadership Institute hears stories each week from disability leaders who have left their jobs because they were unable to access appropriate workplace adjustments. It is not a small decision to leave a job, particularly for a disabled person, and is usually the last resort after all alternatives have been exhausted.
Poor workplace adjustments go hand in hand with bullying and harassment, which disabled people experience at three to five times the rate of other employees (according to various workplace studies including IGPA and VPS). The refusal to provide safe working conditions, and to target those that ask for them, creates hostile environments that ultimately become impossible to work in.
Common experiences include:
The demand to constantly prove the need for disability adjustments happens to many disability leaders. This may take the form of inappropriate questioning from team leaders or supervisors seeking detailed medical information, to colleagues demanding to know why they get adjustments when others do not.
Being subjected to intrusive questions is a form of harassment. It becomes bullying when adjustments are refused because a team leader does not trust their team member and disbelieves their needs.
The expectation that a disabled person constantly provide proof of their needs represents a culture of suspicion which has its roots in several hundred years of prejudice about who knows best about disability. Disabled people are not trusted to articulate their needs. Someone else will know better and judgements for them. These demands are paternalistic and exclusionary.
Consider that a disability leader, particularly one moving into a senior position, has sustained employment for some time and is well versed in what they need and how to maintain an effective presence in the workplace. Disability leaders know what will work best for them and should be trusted and supported, not denied. These are people making high level work related decisions every day.
Consider, also, that disability leaders who openly identify as disabled are already placing themselves at risk by doing so. There is substantial evidence to suggest that being openly disabled is a barrier to promotion and, in many cases, reduces the options for career pathways. Why would someone openly identify as disabled when the outcomes can be career ending?
Rather than questioning disability leaders, employers should provide the workplace adjustments as requested and focus on supporting the person to contribute effectively. People are not seeking adjustments for fun; they are clarifying what is needed for them to be the recruitment solution the employer was looking for.
Ableism / assimilation
Why do employers recruit openly disabled people? Because they are the best person for the job, and to achieve diversity in their workforce.
Diversity is about embracing the value, the richness, that diversity brings. This means operating differently, ensuring that all team members are equal and contribute equally, and recognizing the skills, expertise and perspective of disabled people in an organisation. Disabled people will operate differently, and employers should want this, embrace it, value it, use it.
Disability in an organisation is not about ticking a box, it is about improving the organisation’s decision making and overall health.
There is not much point, in having disabled people in a team if they are not valued for their contribution. The Disability Leadership Institute hears many stories of people leaving jobs because they were expected to operate as though they were not disabled. They were then bullied when they could not. They are, quite literally, token appointments.
Diversity is not assimilation. There is not a lot of value in finding people of diversity to be part of an organisation and then expecting them to think and act the same as everyone else. Expecting disability leaders to operate as others do is assimilation. It is also ableism. The expectation that someone can be “normal” if they try hard enough to fit in. This is why many disabled people leave positions.
Workforce adjustments makes good sense. They provide team members with the ability to work to their best, alongside their colleagues, and to contribute as equals to the team and the organisation.
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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