In recent years, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has taken center stage in company culture conversations, driven by heightened awareness around gender, race, mental health, and belief—often accompanied by workshops, open discussions, and intentional language that actively seeks to foster inclusivity, awareness, and safety. And while these initiatives are undeniably necessary, you may have noticed that more often than not they neglect to address the experiences of employees with physical disabilities and neurodevelopmental disorders.
Despite a desire for increased inclusivity, ableism in the workplace—which often arises from “deeply ingrained, unexamined habits”—frequently excludes disabled employees from the ongoing narrative of equity, advancement, and inclusion.
As leaders commit to creating inclusive environments, it’s our responsibility to continuously deepen our understanding of all individuals and their unique communication, learning, and working requirements—and we must also actively challenge and work toward changing processes that exclude employees with disabilities.
To support this goal, here are five practices that managers and leaders need to evaluate, replicate, and implement now, both from a personal professional development and leadership perspective, to create a more accepting and supportive environment for disabled employees.
5 tips for making your management style more inclusive
1. Empower employees to feel comfortable sharing their diverse needs
Disabilities span a wide range of physical, mental, and social conditions including hearing loss, visual impairment, chronic pain, and seizures, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders like autism, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The World Health Organization reports that 1 in 6 individuals globally live with some form of disability that impacts their daily life—making people that live with disabilities the world’s largest minority.
In essence, the presence of disabled individuals in society is more common than what you may even realize. To put that into a leadership perspective, chances are that if you’re a manager who has overseen even a mid-sized team over a period of time, you’ve likely already encountered employees with disabilities, whether you were aware of them or not.
Dr. Stephanie Cawthon is a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, co-founder and chair of the Disabled Faculty Council, and founding director of the National Deaf Center. She emphasizes the importance of recognizing that many disabilities aren’t immediately visible, noting that this is particularly true for neurodivergent individuals. She explains that these conditions are often undisclosed by employees due to concerns about facing prejudice and limitations in their professional opportunities.
“Disclosure has a chance to open up communication and understanding, but in many cases results in judgment and discrimination,” she adds.
As a leader aiming to cultivate a more inclusive and nurturing environment for disabled employees, it’s important to broaden your knowledge about the diverse range of disabilities and to examine existing practices that might hinder the development of an empowering culture where employees feel valued and supported by leadership.
Ask yourself this: Do your direct-reports perceive you as someone who is open to understanding their needs, or does your team feel hesitant about discussing their concerns and requirements with you? When leaders are unable to confidently say that employees would feel comfortable sharing their needs, it’s likely not a safe space for a disabled employee to express their own.
As you audit and pinpoint areas of improvement needed in your management approach and cultural practices, challenge whether you’re creating an open and respectful atmosphere where employees would feel comfortable disclosing their disabilities — and even if they chose not to disclose, ensure that you’re creating an environment in which all employees feel safe expressing their thoughts, concerns, and requirements.
It’s important to lead with empathy, regardless of whether a disability is visible or not. When you create a protected and inclusive environment for all, you are setting the foundation for open communication within your team.
Read more: Psychological Safety at Work Is Essential: 7 Ways to Cultivate It
2. Advocate to remove restrictive human resources practices
When biased and restrictive practices occur at the beginning of employment, it’s only safe to assume that these practices will continue to shape day-to-day management and affect the overall working environment for disabled employees later down the line.
A critical step in creating more opportunities for disabled workers within your team, and across your organization, is to make sure that hiring and recruiting processes are equitable during both the screening and consideration phases for all candidates.
At present, disabled workers face recession-level unemployment and are frequently unfairly screened out of the employment process due to inaccessible tools and discrimination. The unemployment gap for prospective employees with disabilities is alarmingly disproportionate, with 8 percent compared to 3.7 percent for job seekers without disabilities.
Cawthon says even AI screening tools, which many are exploring now, could exhibit biases against disabled applicants, and she says many of today’s standard hiring practices put disabled individuals at a disadvantage. Along with a lack of assistive tools and systems, job descriptions often have disability bias like using complex words, long lists, lengthy sentences that could deter a candidate with dyslexia or autism from applying - or listing physical requirements that are exclusionary like “stand/walk” or “climb”. Furthermore, hiring practices are notorious for a lack of flexibility in timing that would allow a job-seeker to request reasonable adjustments in the process like having extra time to complete a task.
Employees who do disclose their disabilities during the hiring process are often met with resistance, with higher management hesitant to commit financial resources to accommodate employees’ additional needs.
Cawthon urges leaders to separate the cost of access from the hiring process. This means that employers should avoid identifying a strong candidate, only to later doubt whether they can afford the necessary accommodations. In some instances, employers might even attempt to offer qualified candidates a lower salary to offset the cost of accommodations.
“Yes, it happens all the time,” Cawthon says, acknowledging that it can be difficult to believe such practices occur. Instead, she advises leaders to “hire them first, then figure out accommodations.”
Studies have shown that when organizations invest in accommodations, they actually “provide more benefits over time with minimal cost.” Furthermore, many businesses are able to access financial assistance that will cover a significant portion, if not all, of the financial investment needed to create more accessible physical workspaces and digital resources.
To take action in your organization, explore the accessible tools and resources available to potential candidates, learn the various needs and requirements for diverse employees to complete the onboarding process, and confront HR procedures that impose disadvantages for disabled employees.
3. Proactively resist beliefs that dissociate disability from human experience
Many of your teammates may be unaware that their everyday language and behaviors, which they may perceive as “normal,” can actually be exclusionary, off-putting, microaggressive, and disrespectful to individuals with disabilities. It’s up to leaders to educate themselves—and their teams—about ableist language, practices, and workflows that marginalize and disregard disabled employees.
When these behaviors aren’t discussed in ongoing DEI training (and DEI should be a continued discussion, not a set it and forget it initiative), employees remain unaware of their insensitivities. Cawthon cautions that there are a number of subtle ableist phrases that are ingrained into our language that unintentionally mock disability (“I turned a blind eye to those problems”). These responses tend to emerge effortlessly in group settings, and their potential to cause harm may go unnoticed due to the normalization in everyday language.
Another common workplace occurrence that marginalizes employees with disabilities is when leadership and colleagues overemphasize verbal expression as the primary indicator of intelligence. “There are many ways to be intelligent,” Cawthorn says, “Not just verbal articulation, on the spot, in a meeting.” Managers and leadership must recognize that not all employees have the same contribution style. Some individuals need more time to process information or may feel more comfortable providing feedback in a different format.
There’s no-one-size-fits-all template for delivering value in the workplace, yet employees with disabilities are often not given the grace to contribute in ways best suited to their style of productivity. These exclusionary practices result in alienation of valuable team contributors and are a core reason why employees choose not to disclose their disabilities in the first place.
Cawthon says “leaders can help make a place safe for disclosure by sharing their own experiences with disability in their personal lives.” Open communication among a broader team can encourage employees to view disability as an integral part of the human experience, rather than a siloed aspect.
To foster a more inclusive atmosphere within your own team, make a conscious effort to eliminate ableist language from your vocabulary, encourage colleagues to broaden their understanding of diverse human human experiences to inspire empathy, and maintain open dialogue about individual experiences—allowing employees to share their own stories without fear of judgment, and enabling teammates to offer support when others’ needs are different than their own.
4. Create a universal culture of flexibility and adaptability
Cawthon says another key area managers need to evaluate and adjust is their practices of time management and deadlines: “Any flexibility on when and how people work on projects can help people with disabilities participate more fully.”
As a leader of project execution, you likely feel pressure to meet and surpass deadlines, often with limited time to achieve your project goals. Words like “agile” and “sprint” are all the buzz these days, reinforcing the importance of quick decisions and work. While in some instances these workflows are necessary to achieve project goals, it’s crucial to evaluate how your team’s workflow impacts employees with physical disabilities and neurodivergence.
The pandemic has taught us that most employees value greater flexibility in their work arrangements, allowing them to have more control over how and when they work. Studies have even proven that workers generally value flexibility over higher salaries (though don’t use this as an excuse to underpay them).
It’s important to understand that providing flexibility should not be seen as “special treatment” for disabled employees that makes them feel like their needs are a burden. It should be a standard practice to create a flexible work culture in support and acceptance of all employee’s needs.
Not only does a universal flexible work environment positively impact the overall morale of a team, but it also levels the playing field for all valuable contributors, ensuring fair and unbiased performance evaluations, promotion opportunities, and career development plans.
Lead this effort on your team by establishing policies that promote flexible arrangements like teleworking, flex-time schedules, hybrid-working models, and unpoliced paid time off.
5. Actively seek new connections
The most salient piece of advice that Cawthon would share with managers who have a desire to create a supportive and nurturing environment for employees with disabilities is to actively, and genuinely, get to know new people.
“Seriously. It’s about relationships,” she says. “You can start with some of the videos, movies, documentaries, and social media leaders. But in the end, you have to get to know people to have the kind of empathy that is needed.” When connecting with someone with a disability, ask about their experiences and learn the types of things that work for them in their daily lives and in work settings—provided they’re open to discussing it.
In a recent LinkedIn post, Cawthon emphasized that “if you’ve met one person with a disability, you know a little bit about ‘one’ person with a disability. That’s it. You are not an expert on all things disability.” She highlights that it’s important to continue to build relationships and learn about different experiences because, “blanket assumptions based on one example do a lot of harm.”
Because leaders’ responsibilities are just as much about people as they are about task management, it’s essential for managers to diversify their network and engage individuals with disabilities in personal and professional settings. You should be asking questions, seeking feedback, and exchanging ideas with diverse minds of many different lived experiences.
Continuously learning about people is both essential for personal and professional growth—and mission critical when creating supportive and nurturing environments for your team. Empathy, and a curiosity to know more about human experience, should be your guiding principle.
While there’s no cheat code to being an effective manager, cultivating a genuine connection with others can undoubtedly bring you closer to creating an environment that allows employees of all lived experiences to thrive.