Employment history for the disability community is replete with stories of systemic discrimination, unequal work opportunities, and persistent exclusion.
Much of this hit a breaking point with the rise of the disability rights movement in the 1960s and the eventual passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which is celebrated each year as National Disability Independence Day.
Still, professionals with disabilities experience high unemployment rates.
In fact, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities hovers near 7.6%, while remaining only 3.5% for their peers without disabilities, per a 2022 report from the U.S. Department of Labor.
So, what can you do to overcome this so-called “employment gap”? What policies and practices does your organization need to do to effectively recruit and retain more people with disabilities?
Why You Should Hire More Professionals With Disabilities
The reasons for hiring professionals with disabilities are abundant, but most importantly, we have a moral obligation to ensure everyone can fully participate in society, regardless of their disability.
Roughly 20 percent of the world’s population lives with a disability. That amounts to 42.5 million Americans, according to a July 2023 Pew Research Center report.
As a result, when you design your workplace in inaccessible ways, you’re excluding a large swath of people whose contributions could mean a world of difference for not only your business and customers, but society as a whole.
You should employ more professionals with disabilities because:
- The disability community is an incredibly large and diverse collection of people. By bringing them into your organization, you expand the reach of your business, becoming more capable of connecting with the needs and interests of other people living with disabilities.
- There’s a strong business case for it. Inclusion has a growing impact on brand affinity and revenue. In fact, 90% of consumers say “they would prefer to give their business to companies that hire individuals with disabilities,” according to a U.S. Department of Labor survey.
- Professionals with disabilities are uniquely adept at problem solving. In a world frequently not designed for them, people living with disabilities are continually forced to find uncommon and innovative ways to participate in society while meeting their individual needs. For businesses, this translates to team members who bring a special skill set attuned to solving problems relevant to your customers and other employees.
- It fosters a more inclusive and equitable workplace culture. More and more companies are embracing ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) and other social initiatives, largely, because consumers want to buy from brands that reflect their deepest values.
They want to know your company is leaving a positive impact on the world. And that includes making sure everyone, regardless of their disability status, has a position at the decision-maker’s table. The more people with disabilities you hire, the more likely your organization is going to reflect the diverse array of needs and perspectives they each bring.
Now, in order to become a company that’s desirable for professionals with disabilities, you ought to implement several policies and practices.
Embrace Accessible Hiring Practices
Recruiting professionals with disabilities starts with what is usually their first interaction with your business: the job description.
Where to Post Job Descriptions
Not only should you post job descriptions on more traditional platforms such as LinkedIn or Indeed, but sites geared specifically toward people with disabilities, as well. For instance, Inclusively is a job platform dedicated specifically to helping people with disabilities find gainful employment.
Also keep in mind that inclusive job descriptions should filter out gender coding or other discriminatory language and biases regarding race, culture, age, sexuality, or religion.
Ask About Accommodation Needs
Additionally, there are changes you can make to your job descriptions to signal your commitment to accessibility and inclusion to potential employees. Ask job applicants to include any accommodations they may need during the interview process or once they’re hired.
“Just give me a screen reader or give me speech-to-text software, and I'll do the same work. It's really not a big ask,” explains Crystal Preston-Watson, a senior digital accessibility analyst at Salesforce who lives with visual impairment in both her eyes. She believes accommodations should be handled the same whether a person is disabled or not.
“It's the same as someone asking for a second or third monitor,” continues Preston-Watson. “I'm asking for a screen reader. You're asking for these accommodations. I'm just asking for the tools to do my job. People in different roles need different tools to do their jobs. And that's the same thing for disabled workers.”
Asking about accommodations tells prospective employees that you are committed to providing them the tools they need to succeed. In essence, you’re telling them that they can expect a more accessible and inclusive workplace.
Adopt an Inclusive Interview Process
Having an inclusive interview process helps remove long-running biases against professionals with disabilities. For starters, this includes offering in-person or virtual interviews.
Remote work has been an incredible blessing for professionals, but especially for those living with disabilities. If your organization embraces the accessibility practice of work-from-anywhere policies, then offering a virtual interview option enables you to reach more prospective employees. And growing the pool of candidates means increasing the quality of talent you bring to your organization.
On the other hand, keep in mind that virtual interviews provide unique challenges for some people with disabilities, in particular, for neurodivergent professionals.
“This virtual world is actually really challenging for people with disabilities, specifically in the neurodiversity community,” explains Jessica Roth, work manager in Salesforce’s Office of Accessibility. “I think that there's this preconceived notion that when you're interviewing, you're making eye contact, and you're really engaging. That's challenging for anyone to do right virtually, let alone someone who is neurodiverse.”
Prioritize Disability Representation in Leadership
When prospective employees are initially becoming acquainted with your organization, they’ll explore your website, as well as your marketing materials. They want to develop a firm sense of what your values are.
And if they’re a professional with a disability, they’re likely focused on whether your company has people with disabilities represented in leadership positions and in marketing assets.
This first assessment is often an effective way to judge whether an organization is seriously committed to accessibility and inclusion, or falling prey to virtue-signaling, the practice of inauthentically using the DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) language without making any material changes to benefit those affected by inaccessibility, exclusion, and discrimination.
Looking at the numbers, disability representation in leadership is discouraging.
Of the 415 companies that participated in Disability:IN’s 2022 Disability Equality Index, featuring 69 of the Fortune 100 and 188 of the Fortune 500, a mere 6% have “someone who openly identifies as having a disability serving on their company’s corporate Board of Directors.”
Alternatively, if your company leans into accessibility, it’s easy to outperform competitors as you recruit for professionals with disabilities. You’ll definitely strike a resonant chord with professionals eager to avoid the added exhaustion that comes from working for inaccessible employers and exclusionary supervisors.
Implement Digital Inclusion
While disability representation is about featuring professionals with disabilities on your websites and marketing materials, digital inclusion is a more comprehensive approach to ensuring digital properties are fully accessible for everyone, regardless of their disability—helping bridge the “digital divide.”
People who rely on screen readers and other assistive technologies will immediately pick up on whether you take seriously the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a cadre of best practices and protocols meant to guarantee your digital platforms are accessible to all.
This ranges from proper alt-text and effective contrast between colors to avoiding auto-play video and audio and removing timers from forms visitors fill out.
Your UX and UI have to be accessible for people living with any variety of disabilities. To help you, here are several guides geared toward improving accessibility and digital inclusion for people with specific disabilities:
- d/Deafness & Hearing Impairments
- Blindness & Vision Impairments
- Physical Disabilities
- Speech & Language Disorders
- Mental Health Disabilities
- Learning Disabilities
If you really want to attract professionals with disabilities and give them compelling reasons to stay at your organization, then you’ll also want to adopt a “shift left” mentality, an approach made popular by Salesforce wherein accessibility is positioned at the front of the design process—rather than baked in or overlaid afterwards.
Create an Inclusive & Belonging Work Culture
As you hope to not only recruit but retain professionals with disabilities, you must consistently do the things that generate an inclusive and belonging work culture.
You can implement the previously mentioned policies and practices, but if you don’t have a workplace setting where team members foster a culture of accessibility and inclusion, then your recruiting and retention efforts are going to be frustrated.
Educate team members on inclusive language practices. Raise awareness around disability issues, such as neurodivergent masking and psychological safety. Employ so-called “access checks” during virtual meetings. Provide flexible working options.
As these things become a natural part of your company culture, you’ll soon find your current employees with disabilities are thriving while you’re attracting even more professionals with disabilities to open positions.
Yes, that’s great for business, but more importantly, it reflects the moral progress that is possible when we integrate more democratic practices into our work cultures.
Salesforce is a founding partner of InclusionHub, a resource for digital accessibility, dedicated to helping businesses prioritize digital inclusion. To learn more about how to recruit and retain professionals with disabilities, visit Salesforce’s a11y website.