Case study: Disabled people
When growing teams, strong companies want to find the best candidate for the job and support that person to be as successful as possible. Some roles explicitly require specific physical capabilities, such as the ability to reliably lift 40 pounds or a high level of visual acuity. Excluding these situations, the workplace should include disabled employees alongside nondisabled counterparts, as impairments rarely have an effect on someone’s ability to fulfill the needs of a job role. Some disabilities are obvious to casual observers, such as requiring the assistance of a wheelchair, scooter, or walker. Others may not stand out to a work acquaintance, such as legal blindness that does not affect the employee’s ability to navigate their environment, chronic back pain, mental health conditions (including PTSD caused by abuse and other traumas), fibromyalgia, or severe asthma.
Stephen, a wheelchair user, has just been hired in the marketing department. During the onboarding process, he stressed that he would need the help of his teammates to keep aisles and pathways clear and ensure that his wheelchair wasn’t obstructed. Stephen would also need an adjustable desk in an accessible meeting room for meeting with clients. Several weeks after he started work, Stephen met with his manager, Joaquin, expressing frustration that his access needs were not being met. His coworkers persistently left their bags and other belongings scattered on the floor, and he shared that he’d often been forced to meet in public areas with clients because no accessible meeting space was available.
When Joaquin reminded the team that they needed to accommodate Stephen’s wheelchair, a few were unsympathetic to his situation and implied that he was asking for “special treatment.” Tensions began to grow between Stephen and some team members, making it harder and harder for him to get work done. Despite the fact that clients enjoyed working with Stephen and the quality of his job performance had been consistently high, he started struggling in performance reviews and considered requesting a transfer to a different department.
Joaquin hasn’t been in a situation like this before, but he knows that Stephen can be a strong performer on the team if he has the right support. He reaches out to his internal HR representative to get advice on how to talk with his team about the situation. Taking her advice, Joaquin meets with Stephen to discuss the situation and come up with an actionable plan that includes creating a formal system for booking meeting rooms, adding more accessible desks so Stephen doesn’t have to rely on a single room for meetings, and creating a storage area for bags and belongings to keep them organized and off the floor. In 1:1 meetings, Joaquin talks with the team about why consideration of every person is important for the team’s success, and further emphasizes as needed that disrespect for fellow employees violates the company code of conduct and will not be tolerated.
Jane, a engineering manager, hires Gyeong, an extremely talented coder who comes with excellent references, though one reference noted that he could become “frustrated,” but didn’t elaborate. Jane learns that Gyeong has a Cochlear implant — a device used to address damage to the inner ear in people with full or partial hearing loss — when he mentions being hard of hearing in a team meeting and asks people to “tap me on the shoulder to get my attention.” Initially, Gyeong does well on the team, and plays an active role in developing his skills and working with his colleagues.
However, after the first few weeks, Gyeong’s teammates begin to say that he can be difficult to work with, and the quality of his work declines. In a meeting with Gyeong, Jane addresses these concerns, and he explains that he feels excluded from important meetings and the decision making process. She realizes that many critical conversations tend to take place in an ad hoc fashion as people chat between their desks, pull each other aside, or talk in the halls. Gyeong can’t participate in these conversations because he doesn’t know they’re happening, and he also appears reluctant to ask for help, in addition to being irritated when people offer assistance.
Jane follows up with Gyeong, concerned that his work performance is suffering and asking what she can do to support him. She specifically outlines what she’s observed as she watches the team interact. Gyeong admits that he has trouble following people if he can’t see their lips, and that it’s hard for him to differentiate between an ad hoc decisionmaking meeting and a group of people who may be talking about something else. She and Gyeong develop a list of solutions: Reorganizing desks so that Gyeong can easily see the lips of the people with whom he works most closely; asking all team members to ping each other in Slack when they need to get each others’ attention; facing Gyeong and articulating clearly when talking to him; and asking that design discussions take place in formal meetings with team members meeting in a location like a conference room where ambient noise is reduced so Gyeong can concentrate.
She communicates this information to the team and copies HR, so HR staff are aware of the issue and have information on file in the event there are further problems or that Gyeong moves to a different team. The documentation on file also allows HR to proactively accommodate Deaf and hard of hearing employees in the future.
What NOT to do
Don’t be afraid to acknowledge these differences in your team. Pretending that differences don’t exist only creates a taboo about discussing how to best support every member of the team. It doesn’t change the fact that these differences exist.
Don’t turn accommodations into something remarkable or special, thereby singling employees out. Instead, set policies that silently accommodate disabled employees — for example, in Gyeong’s case, asking that all team members use pings in Slack to get each other’s attention, or moving desks in an office to help people see each other and communicate more easily. These changes make disabled employees more comfortable, as they won’t feel like they stand out in the group. In addition to reducing the feeling of being scrutinized, these policy changes help all employees, as others struggling with similar problems who may have been afraid to speak up can benefit from the change in work style.
Don’t criticize disabled employees for requesting accommodations, claim that they are creating a burden for the team, or demand proof that they need specific accommodations; particularly for employees with chronic illnesses that may affect energy levels, this can be a common problem. People who experience fatigue and other impairments that may affect their ability to stand, talk, or engage in other demanding activities for extended periods of time may feel shy about asking for accommodations if their team leaders belittle their needs.
Be thoughtful about how your team’s bonding practices may exclude disabled employees and negatively impact their career prospects. For example, if your team regularly has Soulcycle outings or your founders frequently embark on fun runs with teammates, understand the negative repercussions these events have on team members who are unable to participate. Similarly, an employee with PTSD or a Deaf/hard of hearing employee might be uncomfortable in a loud, dark environment like a club or laser tag arena. Employees with mobility impairments and fatigue could have trouble at an event that requires a lot of standing, like a cocktail hour meet and greet. Be cognizant of creating an exclusionary culture, and cultivate events that everyone can participate in.
What TO do
While onboarding, talk with every employee and ask them if they need accommodations, stressing that disability status will remain confidential — note that accommodations can benefit everyone, not just disabled people, and employees may appreciate being asked. A nondisabled employee, for example, might work better under natural light, or prefer a spot near the bathroom because she’s pregnant and needs to use the restroom more frequently.
Not all disabilities that require accommodation are obvious to an outside observer. By having this conversation with every employee, you’re both consistent and gathering information to help your team succeed, and you won’t make disabled employees feel like they’re receiving extra attention. By doing this early, before there is a pressing need or incident, you can prevent problems in the workplace or discord on the team.
Work with all employees to accommodate their needs. Some examples include: providing a large screen laptop for visually impaired employees; adjusting desk height; placing a work area near an accessible entrance; providing a quiet place to work; keeping areas between cubicles and desks clear for people who use mobility aids; reminding all staff not to interact with service animals without permission; ensuring that conference rooms are fully accessible; and discussing changes to desk and cubicle layout that may help employees with physical impairments, temporary or permanent, work more effectively with their teams.
Do loop in both your manager and HR, in writing. Documentation is important in every case. If you need to provide specific facilities accommodation, you may need their assistance in making these changes happen as well, and there should be a clear record in the event of questions from future team leaders, new HR personnel, or the legal department. This will also allow employees to have continuity of experience if they change managers within the organization for any reason. The company will also have precedent on how to continue to support disabled employees and people who switch departments.
Disabled employees have a great deal to add to the workplace, though some may require accommodations to work at their best. Many are not only extremely qualified, but bring new perspectives to the table — for example, a blind programmer may have design suggestions that could improve accessibility for visually impaired users of a product. Building a workplace environment that supports disabled employees will also benefit people with temporary injuries and people who may not want to disclose their disabilities. Employers who embrace universal design and access as models while they grow will also attract more disabled talent, broadening the depth of experience among their employees.