5 Essential Ways To Accommodate Disabilities At Work—Including Invisible Ones
Accessibility means more than
just wheelchair access.
In the 1990s, I received my Dyspraxia diagnosis. Dyspraxia is a disability that gives me an underdeveloped sense of space, time, and fine motor skills.
When I was diagnosed, stigma was a lot higher. But in the mid-2000s, disability stories became an important part of shows like “Glee” and “Doctor Who.” These characters gave more people a way to connect to the disability experience. However, these characters are only a one-dimensional reminder that the disabilities they live with exist.
Challenging subjects, like unemployment, are avoided. For people with disabilities, it is double what it is amongst the general population. A huge part of the problem is the work environments that exist for people with disabilities, and the level of accessibility they offer.
Accessibility is often misunderstood, because it’s about a lot more than wheelchair access. Often, when I enter a building, that’s all I see. People with mental and neurological disabilities, along with chronic health conditions, also need accommodations. It’s something I’ve experienced, and I am currently self-employed because I’m more productive in an environment where I control how and where I work.
So, if you’re building a team or workspace and you want to be more inclusive, here’s what you need to know.
1. Take invisible disabilities seriously.
Invisible disabilities are “invisible,” so they’re often ignored or misunderstood. In fact, some believe that people with invisible disabilities are “faking it.” If you want to be more accommodating, don’t make that assumption.
Instead, allow everyone to access accommodations. Someone’s reasons for needing accommodations may not be easy to spot from a distance, but they may need access due to chronic illness or a neurological disability. Everyone needs a judgment-free environment to access what’s available.
This is something I’ve often experienced, so I’ve developed great coping mechanisms. For example, if someone gives me directions to a specific place, the instructions don’t stick. To compensate, I memorize specific visual cues. Something as simple as seeing a particular store or statue is a signal of which direction to walk. I also rely heavily on Google Maps and my patient loved ones to help me find my way around even the most familiar cities.
Then there’s my behavior when dealing with crowds of people. If I don’t focus hard enough on putting one foot in front of the other, I’ll forget what I’m doing. I have to put all my focus on things most people take for granted, like climbing stairs and getting out of a car. Otherwise, I’ll fall or knock someone over.
2. Encourage breaks and productivity habits.
Neurological disabilities make it impossible to filter out irrelevant noise, which makes too much noise a distraction. Tools like headphones can block the sound of a busy office environment and enhance focus.
Speaking of focus, supporting healthy productivity habits can make a huge difference. Having to work in front of a computer without regular breaks is bad for everyone’s productivity. If I don’t take breaks, I make mistakes and overlook important details because my brain will get tired.
A great solution to this is to encourage your team to use the Pomodoro Technique. When you use the Pomodoro Technique, you work for 25 minutes, take a short break, repeat. You then take a longer break once you’ve cycled through four 25-minute increments. Using this technique has helped me break up my work into smaller chunks. It has also helped me process a lot more information.
It’s been found that 1.5- to 5-minute breaks can increase productivity and reduce pain, so encouraging (rather than policing) your team’s need for more than one break can help people—with everything from chronic health issues to processing disabilities—tackle their work.
Since the early days of his film industry career, my father has used exercise breaks as fuel for his creativity and as stress relief. This was a major influence on how I learned to be productive. Anything that gives me an opportunity to not look at a screen for a while leads to my most important creative breakthroughs.
3. Have a backup plan when elevators need repair. (People with physical disabilities depend on it.)
Years ago, I was taking a subway home and paid for my journey. Behind me, a man in a wheelchair asked the subway station’s ticket-taker how he could access the subway platform.
“Sorry, our elevator isn’t working,” was the only reply. Then the ticket-taker gave directions to the nearest accessible station—which wasn’t a quick trip. Here’s the issue with that.
If the man in the wheelchair needed access to this elevator to get to work, it may stop him from earning a paycheck.
But, some backup plans might be more realistic than others. A lot depends on your available resources. Here are two potential solutions if you have an elevator in your workspace:
Provide platform lifts and ramps.
Do regular maintenance and inspection of elevators to avoid surprise equipment breakdowns.
4. Be thoughtful about public transportation.
I live in one of the largest cities in Canada, which means there are options for people with disabilities. For example, every major street has plenty of Uber Assist drivers. Not too long ago, I had a conversation with one, and according to the driver, Uber provides specialized training. In this training, drivers learn how to accommodate customers with physical disabilities.
My partner relies on a cane for mobility, so I’ve used Uber Assist a lot. Most are great drivers (and their patience is above average). But here’s the catch: it’s not cheap if you use it every day.
If Uber is too expensive, there are public transportation options. This includes shuttle services for people in wheelchairs and buses with wheelchair ramps. But public transportation isn’t consistent enough and may make people late for work.
Commuting may also start to be inaccessible in weather conditions that are hazardous for people with disabilities, such as snow and ice. Then, the demand for taxis, shuttles, and public transportation goes up, traffic increases, and the number of available drivers decreases. The same thing applies when there are vehicle breakdowns, or something is interrupting the flow of traffic. When getting to work is a challenge, let people work from home or cover the costs of accessible transportation. This will help make your workplace far less short-staffed and a lot more productive.
5. When in doubt, build trust and ask questions.
Recently, I had a conversation with someone I know from my co-working space about my disability and how it affects me in the workplace. This conversation helped established trust and understanding. It also made working from the same building a lot easier, and a lot more comfortable.
The relationship didn’t change, but when I needed my colleagues’ help with something, a lot less explanation was required. And conversations like the one I had will teach you the difference between what you think your co-workers with disabilities want and what they actually want.
No matter how well-informed you think are, it’s quite common for two people to have the same disability but not face identical challenges. Take all assumptions out of the conversation and focus on asking how it affects everything from how they get to work, to any challenges they’ve faced in their current work environment. Don’t forget to make it clear that you’re there to help and won’t share anything they tell you without their permission. Stigma is a common problem in the disability community, so sometimes it takes a bit of time for people to have an open conversation about their experiences.
Build trust and be kind, like you would with anyone else, because the answers to what being inclusive actually means might surprise you.
About The Author
Rosemary Richings is a Toronto, Canada-based writer, editor, and content strategist. She has ten years of experience running her own blog, a lifetime of experience with writing in every genre, and five years of experience running her own business. This has made it possible for her to help lifestyle startups, such as Lokafy and BeFunky Inc, and large brands, such as Yellowpages Canada and eBay take a big picture approach to blogging. Rosemary’s writing has been featured on dozens of websites including Saatva, Buffer, Weebly, and Get Response. As someone who has lived with a disability since birth, and has so many different family members with disabilities, she is also a passionate supporter and advocate for the disability community.