Path to success: understanding from employers is essential for inclusion to work © Getty Images/Disability Images
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Jim Stearns, an international trade lawyer based in Washington DC who has cerebral palsy, recalls a previous employer who tried to keep him off a high-profile account. “There was a misplaced perception by some in the law firm that I couldn’t handle the long hours,” he recounts.

In contrast, current employer Accenture seeks Mr Stearns’ opinion on what would help him in his work. His company, for example, has recognised his wheelchair use can make travelling difficult and has excused him from doing so. “But in the case of a conference I really wanted to attend, my supervisor went to great lengths to assist me — on the flights, using local transportation and pushing me in a manual chair when my electric one broke during the conference,” he says.

“Reasonable accommodations” or adjustments are often catch-all descriptions for making physical changes to the workplace such as installing wheelchair lifts or supplying adapted keyboards. For many staff, however, the best solution to workplace problems due to a disability is one that costs little: a flexible attitude towards working patterns.

“Employers have tended to put people with disabilities in the legal compliance box, focusing on reasonable accommodations like ramps and automatic doors, but we’re now starting to see more holistic programmes,” says Chad Jerdee, global sponsor for Accenture’s People With Disabilities programme. As an amputee, Mr Jerdee says he knows what it feels like to have people make assumptions about what he can and cannot do. “There is actually little understanding about how easy it can be to accommodate a person with a disability,” he says.

Some employers are trying to create more inclusive workplaces by continuing to set broad work targets, but affording staff with a disability greater flexibility with working hours and location to meet these demands. That can be as simple as allowing a flexible start time, agreeing a reduction in working hours or an exemption from working overtime, granting more frequent or longer rest breaks, or exploring ways for a worker who cannot drive because of a disability to travel for business by some other means.

Whatever the specific need, the key to understanding and meeting that need is often better communication with employees who have a disability. At Ultra Testing, a New York company that has built its workforce around people on the autism spectrum, this communication takes the form of a “user manual” in which the employee lists 28 characteristics about themselves that might help colleagues understand them better. This guide often includes entries on “work habits that assist”, “ways colleagues can provide feedback” or even “potential triggers”.

According to co-founder Rajesh Anandan, better understanding the individual needs of any employee gets to the heart of how to work more effectively with him or her. “We don’t see any of the changes we’re making to business processes and practices as ‘accommodations’ but rather improvements on an outdated system,” he says.

Other, larger employers are using employee resource groups (ERGs) with a disability focus to help them understand and design more inclusive workplaces. Minnesota-based conglomerate 3M’s disability awareness network has helped design flexible work arrangements and an employee assistance programme that offers consultation on subjects ranging from maximising effectiveness at work to navigating family and relationship issues.

Research by Cornell University shows that companies with strong senior management commitment to hiring people with disabilities are five times more likely to hire people with a disability. However, the principal players in determining whether those people actually stay — because their requests for assistance are heard and heeded — are line managers and supervisors, warns Professor Susanne Bruyère, director of Cornell’s Institute on Employment and Disability.

“Line managers and supervisors need to be aware of what a critical role they play in creating and building an inclusive workplace,” says Prof Bruyère. “They need to know that this is part of the organisation’s mission and that they are contributing to a strategic business imperative.”

Nasser Siabi, whose Microlink business helps employers make adjustments for workers with a disability, agrees that managers can be obstructive. “Line managers are often the biggest blockers because they are worried about the cost of adjustments coming out of their budget.

“So yes, you’ve got to win their hearts and minds, but also remove from them the responsibility for the cost,” says Mr Siabi, who points to the example of Lloyds Banking Group, where the cost for an adaptation is now taken from a central rather than departmental budget.

Employees are often fearful to discuss with line managers their need for an accommodation, believing it could negatively affect their performance evaluations and job security, says Mr Stearns.

“Employers must dispel this perception and eliminate any bias, conscious or unconscious, they might hold, including the belief that providing accommodations will be extremely costly for the organisation.”

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