Build a more inclusive culture with disability awareness training

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A whopping 22,843 disability discrimination charges were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2021. That’s 37.2% of all discrimination charges filed that year – making it the most common reason for employees to allege discrimination.[1]

It’s clear disabled workers face serious challenges in the workplace, from a well-documented employment gap to difficulty in securing accommodations and support. 

And while measures such as skills-based hiring have helped to improve disabled employees’ access to work opportunities, they’re only the beginning of the story. Workers with disabilities still struggle to feel safe and supported and like their workplace culture respects their contributions.

Disability awareness training is a way to create this culture within your organization. By improving disability awareness, these training programs lay the groundwork for a more inclusive and welcoming work environment.

But what is disability awareness training, and is it worth the investment? Read on to learn why you need to introduce disability awareness to your company.

What is disability awareness?

Disability awareness is the knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of the experiences and challenges disabled people face. It’s meant to address and counter the stereotypes, bias, ableism, and stigma that limit the opportunities available to people with disabilities.

Obviously, most people are aware disabled people exist. Disability awareness is about acknowledging their humanity, capability, and experience on both an individual and a systemic level.

Some of the key principles of disability awareness are:

  • Recognizing differences

  • Promoting acceptance and respect

  • Giving disabled people a voice and teaching disability rights

  • Increasing employment opportunities

Why is disability awareness important?

According to the CDC, up to one in four adults in the US have a disability of some kind. Their data shows the most common disabilities are:

  1. Mobility issues (11.1%)

  2. Cognition issues (10.9%)

  3. Challenges in living independently (6.4%)

  4. Hearing issues (5.7%)

  5. Vision impairments (4.9%)

Without disability awareness, all of these people end up marginalized and overlooked – as evidenced by the fact just 21% of persons with disabilities were employed in the US in 2022.[2]

But these conditions are just the tip of the iceberg. Many people live with invisible disabilities, including conditions like:

  • Autism and other neurocognitive disabilities

  • Learning disabilities, including dyslexia and dyscalculia

  • Chronic pain issues, like fibromyalgia

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome

Along with some physical disabilities, these conditions aren’t always obvious at first glance – or at all. People who lack disability awareness may find themselves speaking insensitively to someone without realizing they’ve caused personal harm. 

After all, it’s hard for non-disabled people to relate to the disabled community’s experiences. Most of them have never experienced anything comparable, so it takes education and work to empathize with people with disabilities.

All of this matters in the workplace because ignorance on the part of colleagues or managers can hurt and isolate disabled employees. 

Viewing coworkers through the lens of disability-first instead of person-first damages morale, resulting in decreased job satisfaction and engagement, which means lost productivity and income for businesses.

Simple ignorance may also cause unconscious bias at the interview table, leading to poor decision-making that limits your company’s diversity.

What is disability awareness training?

Disability awareness training is a form of staff training designed to increase disability awareness**.** It’s usually targeted at managers (so they can support their disabled employees effectively) or employees (so they understand how to respect their disabled coworkers).

Disability awareness training is usually led by an accredited facilitator from outside the company. Depending on your company’s needs, it can take place in a range of formats, including:

  • Individual e-learning sessions

  • In-person group workshops

  • Group teleconference calls

A good disability awareness training program should explore the different types of disabilities, including hidden disabilities. It should set out the challenges faced in the workplace by disabled employees and explore what non-disabled colleagues can do to provide support.

It should also tackle stereotypes and preconceived notions about people with disabilities, encouraging participants to challenge their own biases and misconceptions.

Most importantly, it shouldn’t be a one-off exercise**.** Disability awareness training isn’t about ticking a box; it’s about improving your company culture in the long term. 

This requires managers to follow up training sessions with concrete, supportive action on behalf of disabled staff.

Why do we need to invest in disability awareness training?

Disability awareness training can be costly, but it’s a worthwhile long-term investment in a business’s culture.

Promoting disability awareness at work makes for a more inclusive workplace. Research shows more inclusive teams see less turnover, which means they save money.[3] 

Specifically, they save between one-half and two times the salary of their employees who would otherwise have left.[4]

They also enjoy greater consistency, which means they’re more productive over time.

And with the right training, businesses can reap the benefits of cognitive diversity. By learning how to support neurodiverse staff and employees with learning disabilities, companies don’t just keep those employees engaged; they unlock fresh insights that boost innovation.

Inadequate disability awareness at work has the potential to be even more costly than training. In 2021, a Wisconsin jury ordered Walmart to pay more than $125m to an ex-employee with Down syndrome.[5] 

The court found the company failed to accommodate their staff member, then fired her because of her disability.

If your managers aren’t trained to be disability-aware, they may make similarly uninformed decisions – with similarly expensive consequences.

For disability awareness activities to be truly effective, they need to come with executive backing. Your company’s leaders need to be fully behind the push for inclusivity and disability awareness at work.

If they aren’t prepared to lead by example, employees receive mixed messages about your company’s commitment to disability awareness, and any training you organize becomes less effective as a result.

The business benefits of disability awareness training

So how can you persuade your business’s leaders that disability awareness training matters?

Let’s look more closely at how your company benefits from disability awareness activities for the workplace.

The benefits of disability awareness training at a glance

Benefits

Why they matter

Greater understanding of diverse customer groups

Enables companies to deliver better customer serviceImproves employer branding

Less biased decision-making

Ensures businesses make the best, most fruitful choicesFosters a more diverse work environment

Wider talent pools for recruiting

Gives companies better access to top talent

Higher job satisfaction and loyalty

Increases employee morale, engagement, and productivity

Increased creativity and innovation

Yields better ideas and higher profits

Greater productivity

Empowers companies to be as efficient and effective as possible

Greater understanding of diverse customer groups

Disability awareness doesn’t only benefit your employees. It also enables staff members to develop their understanding of more diverse customer groups.

This means:

  • Product designers have a better understanding of how to design disability-friendly products

  • Customer service teams know how to deliver the best support to disabled customers

  • Marketing staff understand how to advertise products and services to a disabled audience

Most crucially, it means your company unlocks a brand new market – with brand new possibilities for profit.

Many employers don’t take the time to train their staff in disability awareness. That means it’s rare for companies to consider disabled customers in their product design and marketing, and products for people with disabilities are still considered a “rising trend.”

Taking disabled customers into account sets your company apart, bolstering your employer brand and improving your ability to attract talent who believe in your mission.

Less biased decision-making

Unconscious bias against candidates with disabilities is a real danger during hiring. As we’ve seen, hiring bias can lead to great candidates being passed over, limiting the diversity of your workforce and your access to top talent.

But bias doesn’t just happen at the hiring stage. Your workers can be biased when deciding what they think of a colleague – and when deciding who to promote and who to pass over.

This leads to qualified candidates being overlooked and disrespected due to factors outside their control, like disability. 

Obviously, bias is bad for your company. It means you aren’t making decisions that maximize productivity, profit, and overall success. Instead, you’re following preconceived ideas with no basis in reality.

Disability awareness training encourages your workers to question those ideas and look at the facts. It’s a valuable tool for leaders who want to limit the far-reaching consequences of implicit bias and encourage inclusive disability etiquette. 

Wider talent pools for recruiting

The unemployment rate among disabled people is twice the unemployment rate among non-disabled people. But many people with disabilities want to work, and many of them have the skills to do an exemplary job.

A disability-aware company is well placed to expand its talent pool by accommodating candidates with disabilities. Disability awareness training prepares hiring managers to look past their biases and recognize what disabled candidates have to offer.

It also prepares interviewers to deliver a better experience to disabled applicants. Simple recruitment best practices, like offering reasonable accommodations, make all the difference to candidates who are used to being overlooked.

Disability doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anyone, and it doesn’t reflect a person’s skills, talents, or values. Remember, Stephen Hawking revolutionized his field while living with motor neurone disease.

Keep this in mind, and broaden your company’s talent pool by applying the lessons of disability awareness.

Higher job satisfaction and loyalty

Job satisfaction is directly linked to employee retention and performance. When your workers are happy, they’re more likely to give their best at work – and more likely to stay with your business for the long haul.

So how can your company keep its employees satisfied? A Glassdoor survey shows the top factors driving job satisfaction in the US are:[6]

  1. An organization’s culture and values (22%)

  2. The quality of senior leadership (21%)

  3. Opportunities for internal career growth (19%)

A workplace with a culture supporting inclusiveness and valuing its disabled workers is more likely to foster job satisfaction than a company with a more negative culture.

Disability awareness training reflects your company’s commitment to the kind of culture and values that encourage employees to stay. In the long term, it limits turnover and bolsters morale, creating revenue for your business.

Increased creativity and innovation

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows us that when our most essential needs are met, we’re able to achieve greater things.[7]

the 5 levels of maslows hierarchy of needs graphic

This is true in every area of life, especially the workplace.

Employees who feel psychologically safe and well supported at work are better equipped to perform highly. They can think more creatively, deliver more innovative work, and contribute more significant ideas to your business.

Disability awareness training explores how companies can ensure they meet disabled workers’ basic needs. It fosters a safer, more welcoming environment for employees with disabilities and empowers them to do more worthwhile work.

This is good for your company, as well as your employees. Research shows diverse, inclusive workplace cultures result in increased profit because of innovation and creativity.[8]

Greater productivity

High employee engagement leads to greater productivity – 18% greater productivity on average. And as we’ve mentioned, disability awareness training creates a work environment where disabled employees feel more engaged.

The diversity that comes from disability awareness is good for productivity in its own right. Research from Gartner shows companies with diverse teams are 12% more productive than their competitors. 

And it makes specific mention of cognitive diversity – teams made up of people who think differently, including neurodiverse workers.

The numbers are clear: An investment in disability awareness training is an investment in a company’s long-term productivity and growth. It’s beneficial for your employees (disabled or otherwise), your clients, and your business’s bottom line.

How to promote disability awareness in the workplace: 5 activities

Disability awareness training is just the beginning of a larger process of promoting awareness and inclusion. So how can your business go beyond the basics and live out its inclusive values?

If you’re wondering how to promote disability awareness, read on to discover five approaches your company can take.

How to promote disability awareness at a glance

Strategy

How it helps

Workshops and training sessions

Increases disability awareness among all your employees

Inclusion days

Dedicates time and resources to internal awareness-raising and learning

Fundraising events

Fosters a sense of community and establishes charitable giving as a company value

Workplace needs assessments

Ensures all employees have the resources they need to succeed at work

An employee resource group

Promotes employee voice and empowers disabled employees to advocate for themselves

1. Workshops and training sessions

As we’ve already seen, disability awareness training is the ideal starting point for any organization hoping to build a more inclusive culture. And running the training in the form of a group workshop is often the best way to approach it.

Bringing your employees together in a workshop setting enables them to share insights and experiences, ensuring the training is directly relevant to them.

It also fosters a sense of learning and growing together as a company. Nobody has to feel singled out.

If your initial disability awareness training sessions went well, consider following them up with further workshops and development opportunities for eager learners. Staff who are particularly interested in disability inclusion may want to train in disability advocacy, for example.

Empowering your staff to live out their values adds to the culture of your company and leads to higher awareness in the long run.

2. Inclusion days

World Inclusion Day is held every year on 10 October. It’s a day to celebrate differences and honor the connections between diverse individuals. 

The holiday was supported in its early years by a Las Vegas nonprofit serving people with disabilities, and it’s deeply rooted in disability awareness.

But your company doesn’t have to stop at one inclusion day per year. Quarterly inclusion days within your organization are a way to boost awareness and remind your employees of your ongoing commitment to diversity.

You can tie these inclusion days to different awareness initiatives and observances; for example, March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.

Here are some activities you could organize on your company’s inclusion days:

  • Sharing sessions: group workshops in which employees share knowledge, insight, and experiences

  • Guest speakers: invite experts to speak about their research and experiences

  • Training sessions: more on this above

  • Educational activities: find activities to simulate the experiences of people with disabilities, or have lessons on Braille or American Sign Language

  • Fundraising events: more on this below

3. Fundraising events

Fundraising brings an entire team together. Just about everyone can agree it’s worthwhile to raise money for a good cause.

It’s especially true when your business’s values promote diversity and inclusion. A fundraising event is a great way to live out your organization’s beliefs, all while supporting people who need it**.**

Choose a local charity that works with people with disabilities, and involve your employees in the process of planning a fundraiser. They will have their own ideas about how to raise money effectively, and giving them some ownership of the project will encourage them to work toward its success.

Fundraisers are popular with local news media, and a successful event can bolster your employer brand. It shows your community you’re willing to give back – and shows your disabled staff you’re prepared to put your money where your mouth is when it comes to disability awareness.

4. Workplace needs assessments

A workplace needs assessment is an impartial evaluation designed to find solutions to problems disabled employees face. Those solutions take the form of reasonable accommodations like ergonomic workstations, assistive technology, or extra 1:1 support.

It’s worth proactively offering these assessments to employees before they really start to struggle. That way, your disabled staff feel supported and don’t become discouraged or disengaged due to their unique challenges.

Here are the steps you need to take to conduct a successful workplace needs assessment:

  1. Find and book a workplace needs assessor

  2. The assessor carries out a site visit to evaluate the employee’s work environment – take the time to engage with the assessor and answer their questions

  3. Read and assess the recommendations in the assessor’s report

  4. Where possible, implement those recommendations for your employee

Read our guide to reasonable accommodations to learn more about your legal obligations to your employees with disabilities.

5. An employee resource group

Employee resource groups (ERGs) are internal, employee-led groups aiming to offer community and to advocate for inclusion and awareness. For example, an ERG for disabled employees is made up of disabled staff as a form of community and support.

An effective ERG should help steer your organization’s diversity, equality, and inclusion policies. It should give employees a voice for themselves and their community within your company.

ERGs also give disabled employees a safe space to network, share career opportunities and referrals, and offer one another support and resources. 

Encouraging and supporting ERGs within your company demonstrates your commitment to diversity and inclusion. These groups are a way for everyone to learn more about equality, not just the employees who benefit directly from these groups.

6 other ways to build an inclusive workplace environment for disabled people

When it comes to building a disability-inclusive workplace, awareness is only the beginning. 

You need to put this awareness into practice to ensure your disabled workers feel safe, welcome, and appreciated at work.

Here are some strategies to help you create a truly inclusive work environment.

Strategy

How it helps

Use skills-based hiring practices when recruiting

Many persons with disabilities have limited access to formal qualifications. With skills-based hiring, they aren’t excluded from the hiring process.

Take an inclusive approach to hiring

Using inclusive language and avoiding demeaning terms in job descriptions and online materials show disabled candidates they are welcome.

Proactively ask candidates and employees about reasonable accommodations they may need

Accommodations enable disabled workers to succeed at the same level as their non-disabled peers.

Address all forms of

unconscious bias

at work

Unconscious bias limits the opportunities available to disabled staff members. Addressing it opens up more possibilities for them.

Create a culture of transparency around different disabilities

In an inclusive, open company culture, employees should feel empowered to speak about their experiences and ask for what they need without fear of judgment.

Be prepared to offer flexible working arrangements

Many disabled workers need extra flexibility to deal with their specific health and wellbeing needs. An inclusive workplace should be willing to work with its staff.

To learn more about all of these methods, delve into our guide to disability inclusion at work. It’s an in-depth exploration of what HR professionals can do to build a workplace that includes and celebrates staff with disabilities.

Use disability awareness training to empower all your staff

The impacts of disability awareness training go beyond personal development**.** It creates a workplace culture in which all your employees feel safe, supported, and able to do their best work.

Running disability awareness activities at work improves employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity. It also puts your company in a great position to attract, support, and retain top talent – regardless of disability.

That’s why investing in disability awareness training now benefits your organization well into the future.

Ready to think long-term about your company culture? Our Leadership and People Management test enables companies to hire managers who go the extra mile to support disabled staff.

Sources

  1. “Charge Statistics (Charges filed with EEOC) FY 1997 Through FY 2021”. (n.d.) U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved May 10, 2023.https://www.eeoc.gov/data/charge-statistics-charges-filed-eeoc-fy-1997-through-fy-2021

  2. Gonzales, Matt. (March 8, 2023). “Employment Rate Rising for People with Disabilities”. SHRM. Retrieved May 10, 2023. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/behavioral-competencies/global-and-cultural-effectiveness/pages/employment-rate-rising-for-people-with-disabilities.aspx

  3. Nishii, Lisa; Mayer, David. (February 2010). “Paving the Path to Performance: Inclusive Leadership Reduces Turnover in Diverse Work Groups”. Cornell University Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies. Retrieved May 10, 2023. https://ecommons.cornell.edu/handle/1813/73692?show=full

  4. McFeely, Shane; Wigert, Ben. (March 13, 2019). “This Fixable Problem Costs U.S. Businesses $1 Trillion”. Gallup. Retrieved May 10, 2023. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/247391/fixable-problem-costs-businesses-trillion.aspx

  5. “Jury Awards Over $125 Million in EEOC Disability Discrimination Case Against Walmart”. (July 16, 2021). U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved May 10, 2023. https://www.eeoc.gov/newsroom/jury-awards-over-125-million-eeoc-disability-discrimination-case-against-walmart

  6. Stansell, Amanda. (July 11, 2019). “Which Workplace Factors Drive Employee Satisfaction Around the World?”. Glassdoor. Retrieved May 10, 2023. https://www.glassdoor.com/research/employee-satisfaction-drivers

  7. “A Guide to the 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”. (June 7, 2021). MasterClass. Retrieved May 10, 2023. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/a-guide-to-the-5-levels-of-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs

  8. Levine, Stuart. (January 15, 2020). “Diversity Confirmed To Boost Innovation And Financial Results”. Forbes. Retrieved May 10, 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesinsights/2020/01/15/diversity-confirmed-to-boost-innovation-and-financial-results/?sh=74c78197c4a6

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