You may think “I’ve worked in offices for years, and accessibility in the workplace has never really come up as a serious issue. What’s the problem?”
THAT’s the problem. The difficulties that people with disabilities face daily are deeply ingrained in our society. Too often, disability is left out of the diversity and inclusion conversation and those who are most affected have learned to accept the status quo, while the rest of us don’t even notice there’s a problem.
Over 20% of working-age New Zealanders identify as having a disability. That’s twice the number of people who are left-handed! I expect we all have a family member or friend with some sort of impairment. I have two teenagers, one with dyslexia and another with profound cerebral palsy. (I also have a brother-in-law with intellectual disability, a mom with dodgy knees, a dad who’s mostly deaf, and my hearing isn’t so flash either). Yet look around you and it’s clear that disability is under-represented in the modern workforce.
Things have improved, but we're not there yet
Thankfully, society’s approach to disability has changed significantly in the last hundred years. We no longer lock people up in institutions because they have profound physical disability, or complex cognitive impairments, or the “wrong number of chromosomes”. I attended college at an all-boys school with a special-needs unit that was kept separate from the rest of the school—you’d get detention for even entering that corridor! This created an aura of shame and mystery around “those disabled kids”.
By contrast, both of my children went to a local primary school (a KidsCan school!) with an awesome special education programme. Kids with and without disability would visit each other’s classrooms and they all mixed together in the playground. I saw first-hand how this boosted the confidence of both kids with disability and the non-disabled kids. Everyone learned that imperfection is OK, that it’s alright to ask for help or to help someone else, and that there’s no need to get all weird about it.
When I was young, my mom worked as an occupational therapist for the Crippled Children’s Society. As a kid I remember tagging along to workshops for disabled teenagers where we were tasked with drawing faces on bear-shaped plastic bottles with black markers, which would later be filled with shampoo or honey or something. These teenagers (and I) earned somewhere around $1 per hour for our trouble, far less than the minimum wage. Times have changed… the “Crippled Children’s Society” is now “CCS Disability Action” and those kids are more likely to be integrated into the school system. However, it is still legal in New Zealand to pay people with disabilities at slave labour rates, such as a blind woman paid $2.30 per hour by Altus Enterprises to untangle Air New Zealand earphones (in 2019!)
Understanding and embracing disability
While disability has lost some of its shame and stigma, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Many of us believe disability will be the next big worldwide civil rights movement. Diversity is about having a seat at the table, inclusion is about having a voice, and belonging is about having that voice heard. “Disability Pride Week” is an opportunity for people to proudly speak up and own their differences.
Unfortunately, there’s a strong link between disability and poverty. Many people with disabilities face systematic barriers to the degree that they give up looking for jobs altogether—that’s one reason why disability is under-represented in the workforce. Yet research shows that employees with disability are loyal and committed, take less sick leave (on average), and improve workplace culture and innovation. Disability is an untapped hidden talent pool with a strong business case!
What can we do about this? Simply include disability as part of your Diversity and Inclusion initiatives! For help in New Zealand, you can get in touch with Access Advisors and sign your organisation up for the Accessibility Tick programme. For other countries, check the ILO Global Business and Disability Network to find your local equivalent. Accessibility Tick helps you develop an action plan to create a more accessible and inclusive workplace for your staff, and improve accessibility for your customers. New Zealand also has resources available like Workbridge, to both help people with disability find employment, and help businesses put proper accommodations in place.
In the meantime, check out this entertaining and informative video: