Designing A Disability-Inclusive Workplace

The world is always changing for the better.

One of the ways we can measure the improvement to working and living standards is actually through disabilities. As workplace structures improve, and assistive technology and devices become more advanced, disabilities become more accounted for in the workforce. And as society becomes more open and receptive to discussing our barriers, more and more persons with disabilities have the confidence to identify as such, particularly those with invisible disabilities.

Designing a Disability-Inclusive workplace is part of building an inclusive company that promotes development and leadership from all of its members. It’s not about bringing up people you think are struggling so they can meet the status quo; it’s about creating an engaging company culture that allows people to reach above and beyond.

So how do you change your workplace for the better?

Here are some of the top tips that will help you recruit, retain, and realize the full potential of a powerful talent pool that makes up almost 1 in every 4 workers in today’s job force.

Design Your Mind and Learn About Disabilities

Disabilities and how they present for an individual are quite varied. Typically, people divide disabilities into 5 categories:

  • Neurological
  • Mobility
  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Other (e.g. mental health or autoimmune disorders)

No one group requires more or less attention, and within each there are still many gradients and subcategories to explore. When working with people with disabilities, start by understanding which disability afflicts them, then do some research. There are many resources that promote awareness and understanding, and you can also talk to other managers that may have found smart solutions in their own workplace.

Remember that people can have more than one disability as well, and if they’re comfortable discussing it with you, can also be a wealth of knowledge about how they can be better included in the company.

Design Your Workspace for Accessibility

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of workplace accommodations cost under $500 USD. And nearly a quarter have almost no recognizable cost. So, while some accessibility concerns may require investment, such as access ramps and elevators, the lion’s share are simply small changes you can make to ensure everyone’s needs have been considered.

For example:

  • Braille on buttons and signage
  • Adjusting furniture to create space for people with mobility devices
  • Creating distraction-free or low stimulation workspaces

Especially when you have just hired someone with a disability, showing you care about investing the time and thought into accommodating them shows them that you value their membership on your team.

Design an Open Dialogue

When you don’t know, ask. And when you create a safe environment for discussing problems and solutions, you won’t even have to ask.

It’s perfectly fine for you to not know everything there is to know about a certain disability. Remember, each person’s experience is unique; it’s ok to be inquisitive and unsure. Just be sure that you are actively listening and creating room for the other person in the conversation. If you have a question, let it be a question, and don’t make a presumptive statement instead. And before you ask, reflect on whether the answer will help them succeed at their job or not.

One of the best ways to connect and create that open dialogue in your relationship is to talk to your employee or coworker about things outside of just work and disabilities. Finding a shared interest or some other common ground will put you on equal footing and let them know you see them as a person, not just a disability. It’s also a great way to get a new perspective on work and life!

Design New Standards and Stick to Them

Here comes the hard part. It’s time to reflect on what you’re doing wrong right now.

Recognizing your company’s own disability bias means admitting you could be doing things better. But thankfully, that’s the first step to becoming better!

You’ll want to take a walkthrough of your employment activities and facilities, keeping the perspective of your current and future employees in mind. For instance, you could actually take a tour of your building blindfolded, or in a wheelchair, to get a better idea of what obstacles there are (remembering that you are doing this to identify problems, NOT as a way to empathize with a person with a disability).

Ensuring all areas are accessible too, not just entrances and exits, is important for demonstrating that all employees are included equally. As a hypothetical example, if your executive boardroom is not accessible, it could be sending the message that a person with a disability is never going to be considered leadership material.

That said, many of the biases are not going to be so obvious. Some might be subtle, like expecting a handshake from a person who is not comfortable or able to do so. And it’s completely ok if you don’t recognize these right away — the point is that when you do root them out, you change things for the better.

If you’re not sure where to start, or what you might have missed, then consider organizing a Disability ERG!

A Disability Employee Resource Group is a volunteer employee-led group that identifies problem areas, and advocates for positive change. They can include both employees with and without disabilities, and can even be a subset of another inclusivity-focused group you may have.

This group can help you with declaring a mandate of your commitment to designing a Disability-Inclusive workplace, so that you and your leadership team can hold yourselves accountable to the new and improved standards you set.

At the same time, you should continue to hold your employees with disabilities accountable for their work standards just like any other employee. You’ll be doing everyone a disservice by creating a double standard that singles out people with disabilities.


Any business is ethically inclined to make accommodations and build an inclusive workplace. But beyond that, even, it’s undeniable that businesses who practice inclusivity perform better with a much more diverse audience.

We can look at research house HBR’s study that showed that “when workplace teams are constructed to reflect their target customers, the entire team is more than twice as likely to innovate effectively for their end users”, as an example.

You may need to change to keep up with your audience or customer base. But that’s a good thing. The world needs to change to reflect the growing contributions of a diverse assortment of people, and we need diverse leaders to keep making things better.

Because the world is always changing for the better. And now your workplace can too.

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