Gold Medal–Winning Paralympian Shares 5 Tips for Creating a More Inclusive Workplace

November 26, 2019

Photo of gold-medal winning Paralympian Liz Johnson

Liz Johnson has a pretty good idea of just how much people with disabilities can do.

Liz (pictured above) has cerebral palsy, which has left her right side much weaker than her left. She’s won gold medals in swimming at the Paralympics and the world and European championships and set world records in the 100-meter breaststroke. To top it off, she has a bachelor’s degree in business management from Swansea University in Wales-gained whilst training for the Paralympics and World Championships.

“I don’t suffer from cerebral palsy, it’s just part of who I am,” Liz told a Talent Connect 2019 audience in her breakout session Embracing Disability in Hiring: Lessons from a Paralympian. “Just like some people have red hair, some people have glasses, I have cerebral palsy.”

Knowing how much people with disabilities are capable of has made it difficult for Liz to accept how hard it is for people with disabilities to find work. People with disabilities have a 52.6% employment rate in the United Kingdom; people without disabilities have an 81.5% employment rate, meaning there’s a gap of almost 30 percentage points. “The 30 percentage points did bother me,” she told her session, “but the thing that bothered me more was the fact that it hadn’t moved in 10 years. How can that be possible? We’re living in the 21st century here.”

So, in 2018, Liz co-founded The Ability People, a global consultancy that helps organizations develop hiring practices and cultures that embrace workers with disabilities.

The Ability People certainly practices what it preaches. Everyone on Liz’s team has a disability — and they all work remotely and with flexible hours.

In her breakout session, Liz shared five tactics that every company should consider if they are committed to an inclusive workplace:

1. Change your company mind-set: Hiring people with disabilities isn’t an act of charity, it’s a business imperative

“People with disabilities,” Liz said, “don’t need your pity. They just need your understanding to give them a fair opportunity.”

Last year, Accenture partnered with the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN to study companies that excel at employing and supporting employees with disabilities. Their research found that those firms easily outperform their competitors — with 28% higher revenue and twice the net income.

Liz said that businesses need to understand that the goal should be to treat people equitably, not equally. “If you treat someone equally,” she explained, “that means they all get treated the same. But, actually, by treating everybody the same, you stifle their talent, you limit their potential, and you suppress what they could be bringing to your organization.”

Instead, she suggested, give them everything they need to perform at their best. “That’s an equitable experience,” Liz said. “That’s what we’re going for. That’s inclusion.”

2. Recognize unconscious bias and check it once it’s identified

Liz said there are a number of reasons for the employment gap between people with and without disabilities. “But ultimately,” she said, “a lot of it comes down to the level of unconscious bias we all have.”

“Unconscious bias,” says a white paper, Managing Unconscious Bias, produced by Paradigm, “refers to the information, attitudes, and stereotypes that affect the way we process information subconsciously.” It frequently impinges on the way we attract, hire, and develop people, particularly ones from underrepresented groups.

“We’ve all got it,” Liz said of unconscious bias. She encouraged her audience not to be embarrassed by it. She wasn’t, however, suggesting it should be swept under the carpet. “We have a duty,” Liz said, “to become aware of what impacts that unconscious bias and what affects it and how we can open our minds to check ourselves when it’s happening.”

More companies are turning to artificial intelligence to screen candidates with the aim of removing some of the potential for unconscious bias. The Ability People uses disability simulations with many of their clients to change thinking about the issue. “We impose a difference on you,” Liz said, “just so you understand a different way of thinking.” For example, to reinforce that not all disabilities are visible, The Ability People may simulate anxiety by imposing isolation.

Simulations are controversial among disability advocates, who say these activities should deliver helpful insights into both the barriers that people with disabilities face and the alternative techniques they can use to circumvent them. The Ability People ensures that as well as highlighting the barriers disabled people face they help companies make the practical changes needed to dismantle them.  

3. Best guesses are still guesses — ask people what they need and then provide the necessary accommodations

Making assumptions about what a person with disabilities needs can be patronizing, counterproductive, and costly.

“People never intend to make your life difficult,” Liz said. “They always attempt to make a change in a positive way. But by not consulting the right people, they just waste resources and they waste money. And if they get it really wrong, they actually antagonize the community because it’s like, ‘Well, why didn’t you just ask me?’”

 And the good news is that many helpful accommodations are simple and inexpensive. “Often,” Liz said, “your perception of what I need is nowhere near the reality, and it would be a lot cheaper if you just asked me.”

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Related: 5 Steps for Creating a Culture That Attracts and Welcomes Employees with Disabilities

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A study by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) found that most (58%) accommodations cost nothing to implement. Of the accommodations that had a onetime cost, the median expenditure was $500. One organization cited by JAN mounted a lighting system on a vacuum cleaner to aid a custodian with impaired vision. The direct and indirect benefits of providing accommodations include retaining valued employees, boosting productivity, increasing company diversity, improving interactions among coworkers, and building up overall company morale.

If your company has an employee resource group for people who have disabilities (or care for people with disabilities), it’s going to be a terrific source for ideas on how to make your workplace more accessible and more inclusive. If you’re just getting started on this path and don’t have a lot of employees with disabilities to turn to, try one of the national organizations, such as the National Federation of the Blind or the Amputee Coalition, that support people with specific disabilities.

4. An accessible workplace starts with a hiring process that is truly open to everyone

Liz said that companies often fixate on how to make their interior workplace more accommodating to people with disabilities without first making their hiring process more accessible.

“So many people are focused on how they can make the [workplace] experience for a disabled person better,” Liz said. “But what they don’t realize is the person with a disability is never going to get there because they can’t get in the door in the initial part of the process.”

Companies often have so many barriers to entry that, as Liz suggested, worrying about ramps and accessibility-friendly parking spots is somewhat beside the point. According to a survey done by the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology, 46% of respondents said their most recent attempt to apply for work online was “difficult to impossible” and 9% were unable to finish the application.

Businesses can make their websites more accessible by ensuring that their career site is compatible with a screen reader, visuals are accompanied by alt-text, and videos come with captioning for the hearing impaired. Make sure that job seekers can tab through your application without a mouse and that if you have timed sections on it, that they can be overridden. And using plain, simple language throughout will make your website easier to navigate, particularly for people with cognitive issues or intellectual disabilities.

You can also take some steps to make your interview process more open and fairer to all candidates. For starters, your interviewing site should be accessible to all candidates. Inform them about any tests or skills assessments that will be included so they can, if needed, request a reasonable accommodation.

Interviews with candidates who have a disability should look like interviews for candidates who have none — they should be centered on the candidate’s skills, experience, and expertise. Focus on an applicant’s abilities, not their disabilities.

5. Make sure that employees with disabilities feel comfortable being themselves

“In the U.K.,” Liz said, “even though 20% of people have a disability in some way, most organizations only have a 1% or 2% disclosure rate.”

The disconnect between those two figures is partly explained by the trouble people with disabilities have landing a job, but it also arises because the people with disabilities who do have a job often feel uncomfortable, if not outright distressed, about their companies and colleagues finding out.

“These people are not being able to function at their optimum level,” Liz said, “because they’re exhausted from trying to fit in or trying to ‘correct’ their difference.” Liz pointed out that people who have to wear glasses — a universal accommodation for a disability — never have to explain why they’re wearing them.

“We should create an environment where it’s accessible to all,” she said, “and it’s accessible in every sense. That’s not just  putting an elevator in or a ramp or a railing on the stair. Not just the physical stuff, but the way that people are spoken to, because not everybody’s disabilities or impairments are obvious or visible.”

Liz said the three keys to making this happen are empathy, education, and exposure.

Final thoughts

The United Kingdom is hardly alone in making the access to its job market less accessible to people with disabilities. Across the European Union, 57% of people (20 to 64) with disabilities are employed while 80% of people without a disability have a job. In Canada, the numbers are almost identical — 80% to 59%. In the United States, people with disabilities are more than twice as likely as people without to be unemployed.

Clearly, Liz knew what she was doing making her consulting business a global enterprise — companies everywhere can use some help attracting, retaining, and truly embracing people with disabilities. And that last part is particularly important.

“You can create diversity,” Liz said, “without having inclusion. But if you have authentic inclusion, you will naturally have diversity.”

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* Photo from The Ability People

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