While preparing a lecture for my work at the university on “diverse identities at work,” I was reminded of the amount of discrimination, I have heard about within the workplace which is directed toward employees and applicants who live with disabilities, both physical and mental. I decided that it might be important to understand both the challenges and the opportunities of hiring and working with those who suffer.
Some of the, seemingly, obvious workplace challenges for employers who employ disabled persons might include co-worker discrimination, diminished productivity, slower speed, increased need for time off work to attend to medical needs, drugs in the workplace, elevated levels of workplace conflict, decreased ability to understand simple concepts, the cost of changes to infrastructure and technology to accommodate the worker, and more. While these seem like the obvious issues, the research shows that most, if not all, of these challenges are not representative of the majority of those workers who suffer, and for most, a few changes or accommodations actually result in disabled workers being as productive as those who do not suffer, usually more productive. As a matter-of-fact, employers who ensure that disabled employees are shown respect as employees often report that these employees are the most loyal and hardest working employees in the shop.
So what are some of the opportunities that employers have when having employees who are physically or mentally disabled? According to Raisa Arvinen-Muondo and Stephen Perkins (2013), employers who embrace a diverse workplace experience higher rates of retention, create a more expansive set of diverse ideas and innovative thinking, create more useful products and services, make better decisions, have higher retention rates, create a better organizational reputation, and have fewer problems with change. If we consider diversity as more than race, and expand to include people with physical and mental disabilities, then organizations which embrace diversity are often valued as building a foundation for social justice.
Think about what made Walmart stand out in the late 1900’s: The Walmart greeter was one of the only openly visible disabled and/or elderly employees in the United States, and as a community, we appreciated the fact that Walmart was willing to give the disabled this opportunity to find honest, decent work. This may have been a strategic effort to rebuild the reputation for Walmart and show the world that Walmart was a socially just company. For many, this was the end result. Now that Walmart has announced that they will be increasing the workforce pay, this idea means even more. Yes, there are other example, and many are better, but Walmart’s example was put on display for everyone to see, so it is also the easiest to understand for the non-researching employee or employer.
I think one of the most important things to consider is this: In the workplace, like anywhere else in life, mental and emotional disabilities can be the most invisible. At any given time, 1 of every 4-5 people suffers from a mental health problem which is strong enough to be diagnosed as mental illness (even if not actually diagnosed). It might be you or any of those who work with or for you. We may not even realize it. Why not just embrace the differences, skill sets, knowledge, and experiences of everyone. Why not use those who suffer to gain insight about others, learn about what could help them or your customers who suffer,, and to become a better person?
Working with, instead of against, disabled persons adds to the valuable diversity and knowledge pool within the workplace. We can chose to be better people, to help others, to use our differences to advance all of us, and to retain the best, most loyal employees out there. Challenge everyone, regardless of their ability, their race, their age, their knowledge, their experience, their ethnicity, their gender, their sexual preference… Make work about work, and nothing more. I would guess that we might all find benefits in embracing diversity in every way.