Inclusivity: Disability and the Workplace

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Post Authored by A Trusted Freelance Professional

Discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion range across multiple topics. One area that sometimes isn’t discussed, or when it is, has not been carefully thought about, is how all professionals need to better understand the requirements of a colleague who may have a disability. What are the appropriate steps to take within the workplace environment to ensure they are treated with respect, sensitivity, and compassion?

In this guest blog post, one of our trusted freelance professionals – whose request for anonymity we are honoring – provides an honest perspective about being a person with a disability in the workplace and about how disability can inform everything from making decisions to fulfilling necessary obligations. This individual also had a candid discussion with our resources manager Nilofer Ali intended to help readers gain a better understanding of a perspective that still is largely absent from many current workplaces.

Here is her perspective:

A New York Times article about disclosing disability in the workplace popped up on Linkedin in July 2019, and some of the responses to the article rubbed me the wrong way. They came across as though this was the easiest thing in the world to achieve – like representation just magically occurs and all is right with the world when it happens. Before one gets to representation, however, one has to get through disclosure, and that can be complicated. Trust also has to come along with disclosure, diversity, and representation. Rather than comment publicly, I sent this article to one person, and we began a series of conversations about issues and circumstances that relate to disclosure. Those messages ultimately brought this post into existence.

I have known Kevin Gray (Westchester Education Services President and Chief Content Officer) for more than seven years, having worked on freelance assignments for him at several different companies, but I have never met him in person. It took me 6 ½ of those years to trust him enough to disclose that I have a visible disability. Diversity and representation are necessary at work, but they first need to be built on trust.

Representation is popular because it creates diversity of ideas and experiences. However, unlike cultural diversity, ethnic diversity, or diversity of sexual orientation, disability is singularly tied to performance, or the actual ability to do things or perform tasks. The whole point of work is the performance of a task. That’s why people are paid. People who are in other underrepresented groups face issues in the workplace, but they aren’t necessarily issues of performance. A person’s sexual orientation or ethnicity, for example, is not linked to the steps and processes needed to say, write a chapter or do research for it. However, depending on a project’s environment, a person’s ability or inability to complete a task could potentially affect a project.

An employee (or a freelancer) can’t be allowed to use a disability as a crutch or an excuse, but it’s also equally as unrealistic to assume that a person’s disability is NEVER going to be a factor. When many people think of the word disability in relation to employment, the next word that might come to mind is accommodation. Accommodations are only effective if you trust someone enough to disclose, and you feel you can access that assistance without fear of negative consequences (like being dropped from a project or not considered for future projects). Accommodations may also not always fix everything all of the time. Employers risk being all about the representational, inspirational, rah-rah, “look who we hired” part of working with someone who has a disability, but they sometimes think less so (if at all) about what to do if that person has an issue. The implicit expectation is that disability can’t EVER be an issue at work, which is why people hide it, and that included me hiding it for years from anyone I worked for in educational publishing.

Everyone has talents and has faced adversity in life, but the urge to hide one’s disability can be fueled by the uncertainty of how others may perceive adversity. Is that adversity going to be considered as an automatic negative that prohibits advancement and opportunity? Is it only welcome if it is talked about in glowing and triumphant “Hallmark card-like” terms? (Which I, along with most of the disabled people I’ve ever met, hate and would never do. Hearing others describe you as “inspirational” or “courageous,” for example, gets very old very quickly.) Will the mention of adversity lead to the potential loss of employment? Adversity is one of the components of perspective and should be placed on the same plane as talents. By making the reference to adversity explicit, people may be more willing to disclose and share because an employer has acknowledged that adversity exists. The occasional moment of being not-so-great is bound to happen at some point and can be addressed and handled when it does. As a question, it might read something like this: All of us have developed talents, faced adversity, and experienced events that have made us who we are today. We welcome anything that you wish to share about yourself that you feel would enrich our team, add to its perspective, and foster our success.

After disclosing my visible disability to both Kevin and Nilofer, Nilofer wondered if she could ask me some questions about how employers and employees can have a more inclusive dialogue. Here is part of that discussion:

Nilofer: My ultimate goal is really to hear what you think we could do to unleash the maximum human potential of our freelance talent.

#1: I’m not trying to speak for all people with disabilities, but in general terms, for many of us to advance, a certain amount of risk has to come into play to combat the perceptions that some able-bodied people may have about disability. I’ve had people look at me and assume that I’ve gone through special education and can barely talk. They believe my use of a wheelchair is also an indication of cognitive impairment. When I speak and make it clear that I can think and am educated, I sometimes get an extremely surprised reaction.

I think every disabled person has taken some sort of risk to get anywhere that he or she is in life, be it in an educational, personal, or professional capacity. We need able-bodied people to be willing to take risks with us, but that doesn’t always happen. People have to want to do that. Those who make hiring decisions have to be willing to accept a certain amount of chance that everything might not be smooth sailing all the time. The person with the disability has to be willing to do the work and also go along on the same ride.

#2: The path to “unleashing human potential” can be complicated, but complicated does not mean the same thing as impossible. I think some employers believe these two words have similar meanings and find the prospect of inclusion to be daunting. In some ways it is. History has shown that it took decades for “mainstreaming” to become commonplace in U.S. schools. I was continuously at the forefront of that process as I grew up, and parts of it were extremely complicated, but that didn’t mean schools stopped doing it. Embrace complicated in the workplace as much as the dynamics and constraints of a situation will allow. That might include discussion (if the person with the disability is willing), trying things out in the open instead of behind the scenes, or simply being able to roll with some punches. I can’t explain it more definitively than that. Stuff tends to pop up. Know that may happen.

I completely agree with the statements you made about adversity in what you shared with Kevin and am wondering if there are other pieces like that we could be taking into consideration.

When I disclosed to him in July 2019, the first response he had was that I should tell someone if I ever needed an accommodation. He probably regarded what he said as an invitation, but to me, that’s like pulling a fire alarm. No way, no how am I actually going to do that unless I have no other option. The reasons why are simple – I want to keep any gig I happen to have, and I want to continue to be considered for any future project opportunities I might receive.

Freelancers are typically NOT considered to be employees of a development house. We also know that development houses maintain databases of freelance talent. I don’t know another freelancer who has a disability, but I’ve known many people with disabilities. I can’t think of a single person who would easily offer up information that would reveal his or her inability to do something, especially if there’s a handy database full of willing replacements that probably don’t have a disability and can do what that person can do just as well or even better.

Things to Consider

#1: If the goal is to encourage people to ask for accommodations, recognize that asking for an accommodation can be a difficult thing to have to do. Again, I can’t speak for every person in the world who has a disability, but I’m fairly comfortable in saying that if that conversation happens, the individual has probably already tried several different things behind the scenes. Either none of them have worked, or they haven’t worked well enough to address the situation. Making an accommodation request requires you to reveal yourself. It also sets precedent. Once you disclose, you can’t unring that bell.

I don’t know what recognition might look like. We’re talking about a workplace, so it has to fit that tone, but this conversation often ends up being awkward for all parties involved. The employer is likely concerned about being appropriate, and the employee/freelancer probably is stressed out about having the conversation or would simply rather not be having it at all.

In addition, there’s a risk that the accommodation can make a person’s disability become more prominent, not less. The admission of need becomes the main thing that is perceived about you (i.e. “She’s the ____ in the chair.”) People who are able-bodied can sometimes say that as a reflexive statement. They’re not even aware they’re doing it, but throughout my life, that blank has been filled with words like kid, girl, student, woman, student teacher, substitute teacher, and teacher. One of the upsides of deciding not to disclose to anyone in ed pub until now has been the knowledge that people have described me with a shorter version of this sentence: “She’s the writer.”

#2: If possible, allow there to be expectations and consequences without burning the bridge. Let’s say it becomes clear that someone is afraid to ask for accommodations because of the reasons I’ve mentioned or does so late in a process. This situation is tricky because educational publishing is driven by deadlines, so sometimes a mistake is too severe to overcome. If circumstances allow and the working relationship with the freelancer is valuable, try and save it. However, the freelancer has to be willing to pull his or her own weight. This is also a scenario that should happen rarely, not routinely.

Closing Thoughts

Many people with disabilities want to do their own thing just as everyone else does his or her own thing. It’s a balancing act of trying to determine what it’s going to cost you if you have to ask for help. Is that cost worth the risks that I’ve mentioned throughout this post? It can feel safer to stay quiet, bet on yourself, and be wrong than it can be to allow someone (especially at work) to know by asking for help.

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