We need to restructure our workplace policies to reject the idea that certain behaviors and thinking are or are not ‘normal’.
By Fearless Futures’ Public Pedagogy Manager Asher Firestone and Senior Consulting Manager Rubie Clarke
So you want to disrupt disablism in your workplace? In the first part of this series, we unpacked some common and harmful myths about Disabled people that are used to exclude them from our workplaces and societies. In this guide, we will give you the tools to directly interrogate and disrupt workplace practices that are harmful to Disabled colleagues across a range of needs.
Remember when we explained the social model of Disability and why it is so important? When we are talking about Disability and inequity, the “issue” lies in the structure and cultures of our societies and institutions. Our organizational infrastructure is what is disabling. So we need to restructure our workplace policies to reject the idea that certain behaviors and thinking are or are not ‘normal.’ Ultimately, this looks like disrupting the binary of Disabled and Non-Disabled people, and taking away disabling barriers at our organization, for as many needs as possible, without people having to prove they need them or perhaps even ask for them.
This is a framework you can use to do this:
So how do we do this through policies and processes and interactively? Using the employee life cycle within an organization, we will surface some common areas to start with.
- In your outward-facing recruitment policies, you should state everything your workplace is doing to make the application and interview processes accessible. This way applicants will know what has been put in place and so may not have to ask for certain accommodations. This takes some of the burden off Disabled people and puts the burden on employers instead.
- When creating your job descriptions, consider what elements may discourage excellent candidates from applying. For example “excellent communication skills” is a mainstay in job descriptions — but, what do you mean by this? Who is disadvantaged when we are vague? Have you interrogated how different styles of communication can be connected to specific Disabilities or Neurodivergence? For example, Disablist ideas of tone, rhythm, expression, or verbal speech often dismiss communication styles from Neurodiverse folks on the autism spectrum as ‘rude’ or ‘unprofessional’.
- During interviews, consider creating alternative mechanisms to understand people’s skills, that don’t rely on people’s conversational skills (if such skills aren’t directly relevant to the role you’re interviewing for). This could look like practical work trials/ observations rather than needing someone to answer skills-based questions verbally in a traditional interview setting.
- When reviewing CVs/resumes, do you penalize people for having “patchy work experience”, or do your rubrics account for how some people may have to take time off to manage their health, surgeries, or recovery? During interviews or alternative candidate assessments, rather than asking people to “explain gaps in their CV”, focus on the skill and experience they are demonstrating via the CV or subsequent assessment — and specifically those required for the job you are hiring for.
High-intensity social interaction can be difficult for some people when they’re meeting so many new colleagues. Scheduling a few one-on-one virtual coffee chats, spacing these out with other onboarding tasks (reading documents or watching videos — as well as breaks!), and pairing new employees with a buddy to help ease them in, are easy ways to reduce this social interaction and create a more supportive starting point. Additionally, you should give employees enough space at the beginning of the job to understand where their strengths and challenges will be for certain projects, to set a precedent of encouragement rather than fear of failure. This ultimately benefits all employees but for folks impacted by disablism in particular, creating a culture that recognizes how we all experience strengths and challenges in adjusting to a new role, paves the way for creating access adjustments as a standard.
To proactively disrupt “normalcy”, we have to move away from the idea that people have to disclose their Disability to receive accommodations they need to access. As it is, employees are often required to disclose to their line manager that they, for example, have ADHD, so that the line manager can “accommodate them.” However, an anti-Disablist approach acknowledges that everyone will have varying, fluctuating, and specific needs, such as someone newly suffering from PTSD who should not have to disclose a changing “Disabled” status. Indeed, not all folks who negatively experience Disablism use the language of Disability to describe their experience. Managers could instead assign regularly updated “Work With Me” guides* so all colleagues will know one another’s processing styles and can better navigate working relationships.
- While workplaces often schedule social events or away days for team morale, these often neglect the needs of Disabled and sick folks as not a priority. If someone is unable to attend because of barriers to access, they may miss crucial networking and development opportunities that are so common during informal work time. Rather than dismissing those who cannot attend unless access needs are realized, to prioritize the desires of the “larger group”, how could the events themselves be more accessible? Perhaps this means spreading activities out over several weeks, rather than packing it all into one day. Or maybe certain networking events can be virtual and more physically accessible.
- Also, make sure you have thought about toilet facilities, the physical space, how to access the space, the area the space is located in, the cost, time and methods needed to get to the space, levels of stimulus in the space, hearing loop and braille services availability.
- To disrupt a culture of excessive urgency, we need to ask whether a role or a task requires an arbitrary level of speed. If someone cannot work at the pace we want/need–are there other valuable contributions they can offer collaboratively to our shared outputs? What infrastructure do we need to invest in to help people who may find speed more difficult (such as voice-to-written software)?
- What is often standardized in organizational cultures is rewarding overworking: late nights, weekends, etc. to get things over the line. While this may be necessary in some cases, how do we also support people by indexing for thoroughness as a demonstration of commitment and excellence — and make clear for staff what execution of that looks like in the role? For many people with Disability and impairments, pushing beyond their capacity is simply not accessible. How can you use long-term planning so people know when there may be bottlenecks and can prepare for them? Does this feel anti-disablist?
- There may also need to be a policy shift that allows for career progression without incurring line-management duties by default. In recognizing that some people don’t thrive on heavy collaboration, broad oversight, or instructing others, but may have a focused technical skill that has advanced the business, more employees will have the opportunity to progress.
Based on the above — here’s a checklist to use to assess where you are and what anti-Disablist pivots you might want to make. Use the checklist as a baseline measurement to track your progress at your own company:
1. Stating clearly to future and present employees what accessible processes, infrastructure, and policies the organization has in place.
2. Checking in with employees on their changing access needs.
3. Investing in the workspace and online accessibility (see full list here).
4. Flexible work hours and ease of working from home.
5. Giving people autonomy over their work calendars/meetings.
6. With job applications, creating space for people to ask questions or share information about accessibility needs if they want to.
7. In interviews, ask singular questions and paste them in written form so people have time to process them before responding, without being penalized.
8. Encouraging collaboration through labor sharing rather than always valuing individual ownership.
9. Prioritising time for multiple types of collaboration styles, such as ideation sessions.
10. Yearly accessibility audits to check what you’re doing and see where there are gaps.
*These guides and the effective use of them to disrupt individual/cultural norms becoming our shared ways of working, without interrogation, were shared with us at Fearless Futures by the amazing team at Spring Up.