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NDEAM 75: 14 Ways Employers Can Increase Access & Opportunity (Part 1)

Pictured is an empty office with thick books, a laptop, and a cup of coffee on the desk. The office is modern and has a window.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) 2020 may be over, but that does not mean we should stop discussing ways to increase access and opportunity for disabled employees.  For this post, we are going to discuss how employers can make the legal profession more accessible, increase diversity, and create space for disabled law students and graduates. The National Disabled Law Students Association (NDLSA) is uniquely positioned to provide guidance to employers based upon our own experiences as disabled interns, externs, and workers in a variety of organizations and enterprises. As the Associate Director of Job Accommodations, I am responsible for advising on these issues. Our goal is to work with and educate employers to ensure the legal profession is as accessible as possible for current students and recent graduates.

 

I took on the role of Associate Director of Job Accommodations because I am passionate about making the legal profession more diverse, ensuring workplaces are more accessible and welcoming, and providing disabled students, graduates, and early-career attorneys with the resources they need to succeed in their professional lives. I am an attorney and recent graduate with internship and other experience in labor and employment law, and have been published in the UCLA Women’s Law Journal for my work on #MeToo and workers’ rights. The information that follows comes from my personal and professional experience. 

 

Overall, labor force participation for people with disabilities 16-64 years of age is only 32.7%, whereas for people without disabilities, it is 75.7%. That’s quite a disparity. Although there are a number of reasons for this disparity, employers (and the environments they foster) play a large role in our ability to find and retain jobs. Employers, you can make a difference! Here are some of the most important ways that employers can ensure they are attracting the best applicants, accommodating disabled employees, and creating a safe and inclusive environment for everyone. 

1. Disability is diversity.

When putting together diversity fellowships and other types of positions, remember that disability is an aspect of diversity. Disability is often excluded and forgotten, but our perspective is a valuable contribution that is based in our experience of marginalization and oppression. Additionally, as a result of our diverse experiences, we often find different and creative ways of navigating the world, our workplaces, and our cases. The profession must reflect the populations that it serves if it wants to serve its clients competently, and employing disabled attorneys is a part of achieving that goal. 

2. While disability is diversity, we are not just a diversity hire.

Remember to hire disabled people outside of diversity fellowships too. We excel at our jobs and bring valuable perspectives. Disabled employees are some of the hardest-working, most adaptable, and most creative people I know. We should be considered for all types of positions. Moreover, assuming your business or office and the position is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Rehabilitation Act in some manner, non-discrimination in your hiring practices is simply the law. 

3. Understand that being disabled is an asset, not a hindrance.

Being disabled gives us a unique perspective. I am more adaptable and creative. I’ve had no choice but to be me. I am more resilient. I know how to do more with less. I relate to my clients in a way that many of my colleagues cannot. It means that I know to ask about, consider, and research topics that my colleagues do not, not because they are incompetent lawyers, but because they simply do not have the lived experience. I am an asset because I am disabled. It is not the only part of who I am, but it is important, and it makes me better at what I do. 

4. Include non-discrimination statements that incorporate disability and instructions for requesting accommodations in your job postings.

If you make it clear up front that you welcome and want to hire disabled employees, and show you are thinking about the fact that applicants might require accommodations, disabled prospects might be more enticed to apply. It shows that you are creating a welcoming environment. It demonstrates a commitment to inclusion. You may be missing out on incredible applicants simply because you did not include a non-discrimination statement or instructions about application accommodations in your job postings. 

 

Including instructions for requesting accommodations in your job posting will also be helpful for working out any issues that might arise with accessibility. Although some applicants may have individual needs that you should be prepared to address together through the application process, you must still educate yourselves to ensure the process is as universally accessible as possible. However, some applicants may have individual needs that come up that you can address together. 

5. Make sure your application process, job advertising, and website are accessible and compliant.

If your application process, advertising, and website are not accessible and straightforward, disabled applicants will not be enticed to apply, nor will they be able to access the posting. Advertising in different formats (for example, on your website, on social media, on platforms and websites where you can post job listings, in digital and print classifieds, using different language, and more) for access to different audiences is extremely important.

6. Foster an environment that is safe and accepting of disabled employees.

Everyone does their job better in a healthy, open, accepting, environment. However, unfortunately, some employers foster unhealthy work environments and attitudes, normalizing behaviors that exclude disabled employees or make them uncomfortable about disclosing their disability.

 

Disabled employees, like all employees, do their best work when they feel safe and accepted, and do not have to devote their time and emotional energy to conflicts within the workplace. Additionally, they may not request accommodations that may help them to be more efficient at their jobs in an unwelcoming environment. You may not even be aware that some of your employees are disabled. Many people have invisible disabilities, and may try to get by without disclosing or asking for needed accommodations. Around half a percent to one percent of associates disclosed their disability in the 2019 Report on Diversity in US Law Firms by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), a statistic that hasn’t changed since the NALP began reporting disability diversity.

 

One-time, passive trainings are not effective at fostering change in workplace environments. Top-down, sustained efforts to demonstrate a commitment to non-discrimination, acceptance, and inclusion are a different story. Part of that work is ensuring there are real consequences for discrimination in the workplace, including disability discrimination. These instances of discrimination include aggressions (known commonly as micro-aggressions) that many might not believe are harmful, but perpetuate dangerous and inaccurate stereotypes about disabled employees. Zero-tolerance policies are not necessarily effective, however. The response must be proportionate to the conduct. Accountability for action is the key; growth is the goal. 

 

For more information about effective training, accountability in leadership, and consequences for employees, you can check out the EEOC “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace“.

 

It is also important to ensure that you consider disabled perspectives. Disabled people should be involved in every aspect of organizing, planning, decision-making, and executing projects and initiatives at every level—the institutional level, the project level, and beyond. Learn about disability from disabled folks. When non-disabled people lead your trainings on disability, you may be missing some critical perspectives about our needs in the workplace. Even among disabled folks, we do not all have the same needs or perspectives. One disabled person does not represent all disabled people. Hire and train disabled people to fill top leadership roles to ensure that policies coming from the top include these perspectives. Recognize disabled employees for their efforts in providing these valuable perspectives. 

7. An accessible workplace for disabled employees is a healthier and more accessible workplace for all.

Working 100-hour weeks is not healthy for anyone, disabled or not. Employers should understand that 1) disability can occur at any time, 2) personal lives exist, and work-life balance is important regardless of disability, and 3) allowing for work-life balance also makes the workplace more equitable for women, parents, and primary caretakers. Even if your employee is not currently disabled, your employee may become disabled, or working those hours may make the employee aware of a disability that had previously not required any accommodation. Working 100-hour work weeks under high stress could certainly lead to increased anxiety, for example.

When your workplace is physically accessible for disabled individuals, it also may be more accessible for pregnant people. Additionally, creating a welcoming environment will help reduce discrimination against other marginalized groups. Allowing telework and flexible schedules for all benefits those who need to take care of family members, and again, disproportionately benefits women and parents. It may also encourage men to care for their children to increase equity in the partnership track and other promotional opportunities. These are just a few of the ways that creating an accessible environment may benefit everyone.

To be continued in part 2! 

Disclaimer: This blog post does not constitute legal advice. You should speak with an attorney to receive specific legal advice.

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Marissa Ditkowsky

Marissa Ditkowsky

Co-Associate Director of Job Accommodations, American University Washington College of Law '19. Tzedek DC’s 2019-2021 Gallogly Family Foundation Fellow. Her project focuses on serving low-income DC residents with disabilities facing debt and the distinct issues they experience in the process.

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