Disability in tech: how to create an inclusive workplace

How inclusive is your workplace? 

Researchers at Disability Rights UK have found that 84% of employers believe disabled people make a valuable contribution to the workplace, and while this may seem like a positive statistic, with a proportion of employers on the fence about whether those with disabilities can offer a valuable contribution, there’s proof that the workforce still significantly lacks disability inclusion and representation. 

In the tech industry, this problem is unfortunately worse still—our Jefferson Frank Careers and Hiring Guide: AWS Edition found that just 54% of respondents in the AWS community agree that the workforce includes people with disabilities and neurodiversity.  

By making disability and neurodiversity inclusion a priority, organizations in the tech industry can create more positive company cultures, bridge the skills gap and improve talent attrition rates, to name just a few benefits.  

But how can employers create an inclusive workplace? What does disability inclusion at work look like, and what are you doing wrong right now? In this blog post, we’re exploring the answers.  

Why are inclusive workplaces important? 

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022, little over one fifth (21.3%) of persons with disabilities were employed in the US.  

And while that figure is an increase on the 19.1% employment rate in 2021, this still highlights a striking gap in the national workforce—especially when considering that over a quarter (26.4%) of all adults in the US have some type of disability.  

In the tech industry, this representation is worse still. Our Careers and Hiring Guide found that just 11% of respondents in the global AWS community have a disability or neurodiversity, while in the UK, techUK report that just 9% of IT specialists have a disability (despite people with disabilities making up 19% of the UK workforce).  

This lack of inclusivity in tech is highly problematic for many reasons. First, creating accessible and supportive environments in which all professionals can thrive is simply the right thing to do. But by failing to create a positive company culture, you’re disregarding the very ethos on which the tech community was built. And this will show in your attrition rates—our report found that a negative company culture motivates nearly one fifth (17%) of AWS professionals to consider leaving their employer.  

Secondly, being an inclusive workplace allows you to dip into a huge pool of untapped talent when hiring tech professionals. With a skills gap racing towards crisis point, the value of this to employers actively recruiting tech teams simply can’t be understated.  

And finally, the business benefits of building diverse and inclusive teams are well documented. For example, Gartner found that inclusive teams improve performance by up to 30% in high-diversity environments, concluding that, “inclusion is a critical success factor for business performance, even in organizations with an already diverse workforce 

How to create an inclusive workplace  

Data from a 2021 report by research and disability advocacy organization, Cogentica, shows that discrimination against people with disabilities, whether intentional or not, is still ripe across the US professional landscape. Their research showed that 46.7% of people surveyed with disabilities believe that organizations are poorly informed about the needs and abilities of the disabled, while 45.8% believe that there is too much focus on an individual’s limitations due to a disability rather than their abilities. 

This tells us that organizations can’t just be proactive in creating an inclusive workplace—they must be reactive in evaluating their current attitudes, environments, and processes too.  

Workplace discrimination can often be a result of unconscious bias—this is an unintentional stereotype or prejudice that forms outside a person’s own awareness. We all have unconscious biases, they’re a part of being human, but this doesn’t mean nothing can be done to combat them. Once you’re aware of them, you can work on eliminating your unconscious biases to reduce the impact and influence they have on your decision making.  

And so the first step to creating an inclusive workplace is for employers to assess their current working environment and company culture, then taking whatever reactive action is needed to address the biases identified across the whole scope of operations—from hiring processes and the day-to-day to business direction and progression structures.  

While the exact steps to creating an inclusive workplace will vary organization to organization, here are some universal tips for more employers to champion disability inclusion in the workplace and create a welcoming culture that empowers all professionals.  

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5 ways to create an inclusive workplace 

  1. Educate employees through training
  2. Ask what support is needed (and provide it)
  3. Ensure your workplace is accessible
  4. Offer as much flexibility as possible
  5. Encourage and listen to feedback

 

Educate employees through training  

Business owners, leaders, and decision-makers aren’t the only ones that should be evaluating their own unconscious biases and taking action to create a more inclusive culture.  

Instead, all members of your team should be provided with the resources and understanding to make impactful contributions to a more inclusive workplace. And by actively promoting awareness and education in these areas, you’ll create an inclusive culture that feels more authentic and welcoming to professionals with disabilities.  

Yet while the Disability Rights UK report previously cited found that 76% of organizations welcomed disability training being provided for all employees, our Careers and Hiring Guide found that just 51% of organizations in the AWS community consider employee training to be a top equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) priority. And when considering our same research found that just 54% respondents work for an employer with a clear EDI policy, it’s clear why training is so imperative to an inclusive workplace.  

This shouldn’t be a box ticking exercise, so don’t treat it as such: ensure your team are given the time and resources they need to comprehend the information and advice given to them. Disability inclusion training should educate your employees on why it’s important and what they all can do to accommodate team members with disabilities. It should be communicated in positive way that sets the tone for your team—adopt an enthusiastic and supportive attitude, and your employees will too.  

When delivered correctly, disability inclusion training can be really effective at helping professionals understand the challenges their co-workers who are disabled face day to day. And by providing your employees with the tools and understanding they need to support professionals with disabilities, they all begin contributing to a progressive, inclusive culture that shares the responsibility equally.  

Ask what support is needed (and provide it) 

From assistive technologies like screen readers and magnifiers to preferred communication methods and working methods, there’s a wide range of ways to provide support to employees’ disabilities and neurodiversities.  

What exactly these are will be unique to the specific circumstances in your team—no one method of support suits all professionals with disability and neurodiversity the same. The easiest way to find out what’s best for your team members or hiring candidates is to, well, simply ask them! 

As Rob Koch, community leader at DeafintheCloud.com, explains in our Careers and Hiring Guide: 

“Ask candidates what they need in advance of the interview or placement. For example, if you interview a candidate with a hearing loss, reach out to ask them what they prefer in terms of communication. Follow their lead. Some prefer sign language, some can vocalize for themselves while requiring hearing aids, and some communicate over Slack or email. It’s all about catering to the unique circumstance of the individual to ensure they’re suitably equipped to thrive.. 

This same rule applies to the language that you use. Terminology changes over time, and what was once deemed acceptable may noy be considered inclusive in today’s world.  

‘Disabled people’ or ‘people with disabilities’, for example, is the universally preferred term for a group of disabled people, as opposed to using the collective: ‘the disabled’. However, while some individuals would rather refer to themselves as disabled, others prefer ‘person with a disability’. Likewise, while some prefer the term ‘differently abled’, others find this patronising.   

Again, the easiest way to ensure your language remains inclusive is to simply ask your employee about what terminology they prefer—demonstrating a willingness to change your language will create the accommodating environment an inclusive workplace needs.  

Ensure your workplace is accessible  

Remote working, at least to some degree, has become the norm across most sectors—especially in tech, which adopted flexible working more openly than most pre-pandemic.  

In the post-pandemic world, more tech professionals are working from home than ever before. In fact, our Careers and Hiring Guide found that 42% of AWS professionals work for an employer offering full-time remote work. And this spells great news for disabled professionals, removing the barriers some face when commuting and working in inaccessible or high-intensity environments.  

That’s not to say remote working is a one-size-fits-all solution, however. With the majority (58%) of AWS professionals in our Careers and Hiring Guide working in an office at least one day a week, there’s still a demand for on-premise working in the tech sector—and this option should therefore be available to disabled professionals, too.  

And so, it’s important to ensure your workplace remains accessible to those with physical disabilities and accommodating to all those with other disabilities and neurodiversities.  

Some of the ways you can improve accessibility in the workplace include:  

  • Minimizing trip hazards  
  • Improving signage and lighting  
  • Providing rampways (and elevator access where applicable)  
  • Widening doorways  
  • Ensuring all plug sockets are safely accessible  
  • Providing larger computer screens, adjustable desks, and other custom equipment 

 

Offer as much flexibility as possible 

Employers should look to promote this flexibility in working hours and arrangements, too.   

By accommodating a way of working that best suits the needs and preferences of the employee, employers can ensure that disabled professionals are empowered to perform at their best, whatever their situation.  

From condensed working days and additional breaks to flexible start and finish times, this additional flexibility is especially important to disabled professionals in helping to ensure any healthcare isn’t disrupted—professionals are still flexible enough to attend doctor’s appointments and manage pain or associated difficulties at home.  

It also plays a pivotal role in reducing the demand for overtime and the subsequent burnout professionals experience. Our Careers and Hiring Guide found that half (45%) of permanent AWS professionals have experienced burnout in their current role, and disabled tech professionals are at higher risk still.  

The tech industry has become synonymous with these long hours in recent years, and this is causing huge damage to the industry’s inclusivity. As Rachel Thomas, director of the University of San Francisco’s Center for Applied Data Ethics and former Uber engineer, writes: 

“The tech industry’s obsession with working ridiculously long hours is inaccessible to many disabled and ill people, for whom adequate rest is often not optional, or who may have regular doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, or tests. On top of being exclusionary, this insistence on long hours is contrary to research on productivity—it doesn’t even lead to more productive companies”. 

Encourage and listen to feedback  

There isn’t a defined end point for inclusivity—creating an inclusive workplace should be thought of as a journey, not a destination, constantly evolving to overcome the new hurdles that emerge every day.  

Successfully creating an inclusive workplace therefore relies on the feedback of those most at risk of being excluded. It’s one thing getting the ball rolling, but to ensure your actions are having the right impact, encouraging feedback from disabled and neurodiverse team members is vital.  

And so, it’s important to keep feedback channels open by creating a space where disabled employees feel confident in communicating their challenges and concerns with you. This could be in a monthly 1:1 meeting for example, or for something less formalized, simply communicate that your door is always open.  

And of course, it’s imperative that you actually listen to this feedback—take it on board and make the necessary adjustments, ensuring your inclusivity strategy remains empathetic and purposeful, and most importantly, keeps moving in the right direction.  

We all have a collective duty to improve inclusivity across the tech industry and make the community more accommodating to all. Every organization should be providing disabled tech talent with the opportunity and support they need to thrive, and every professional should doing their bit to ensure this talent feels welcome and empowered to perform at their best.

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