Building an Inclusive Environment for Students and Employees with Disabilities

By  - 

Julia Méndez

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the estimated number of Americans with disabilities in 2017 was almost 40 million, or 12.8 percent of the civilian non-institutionalized population. As the median age of the overall U.S. population continues to rise, the number of individuals living with one or more disabilities is expected to grow. Yet this large, stigmatized group of people is often not given a fair chance to reach their potential in the workplace. 

Organizations and institutions should review their policies and procedures to ensure that all individuals are equipped with the necessary tools and accommodations to learn and perform to the best of their abilities, as well as offer opportunities to educate them to overcome negative stereotypes. 

The following are some best practices for building an inclusive environment for both students and employees with disabilities.

According to the 2016 American Community Survey, 23.2 percent of the U.S. civilian non-institutionalized population between 18 and 64 have a disability, and fewer than half of those individuals are not in the workforce. Although it has been more than 25 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, people with both physical and mental disabilities continue to face many barriers. 

In fact, in fiscal year 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported 26,838 charges of discrimination due to disability, which makes up 31.9 percent of all charges, surpassing those of discrimination due to any other protected class. These settlements have financial, employer branding, and internal cultural effects that are difficult to counter. To attract and retain top talent, organizations are faced with creating policies and procedures to mitigate harassment and discrimination in the workplace as well as create an environment that celebrates and embraces differences.

October marks the 73rd year that National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) has been celebrated. The theme of this year’s celebration is “America’s Workforce: Empowering All.” The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) has published ideas for ways employers and employees can celebrate the month:

● Review policies — Organizations should review their procedures with regard to employment practices to determine if barriers exist for individuals with disabilities. Harassment and accommodation policies should also be evaluated to ensure compliance with disability laws.

● Display disability-inclusive posters — Consider displaying the NDEAM poster, which is available in both English and Spanish. NDEAM also offers other materials that you can display at your organization, including the “What Can YOU Do?” poster series.

● Train supervisors — Don’t assume that supervisors are familiar with what their obligations are under disability laws. If your organization does not have the expertise to perform this training, there are many other options available, such as purchasing an eLearning program or having a consultant provide training in person or via a webinar.

● Educate employees — All employees should be educated on how to request an accommodation as well as be informed of the process and the confidentiality of any information they disclose. Sarah Pullano, a senior account manager with Getting Hired, a full-service disability recruitment solution, recommends that inclusive employers be taught disability etiquette — a topic covered in Getting Hired’s online trainings for the organization’s employer partners. 

Other tips recommended by ODEP include issuing press releases that reflect your organization’s involvement in disability awareness activities. Examples include participating in Disability Mentoring Day, establishing a disability employee resource group, and using social media to feature these activities and thus brand your organization as a disability-friendly workplace. 

There are many organizations doing an excellent job in performing outreach and recruitment efforts for individuals with disabilities. Some companies, such as Microsoft, are a disability employer of choice. 

Lisa Maberry, program manager for the autism and disability hiring programs at Microsoft, recognizes that ensuring the company’s software applications are accessible for individuals with disabilities is good for employees as well as consumers. 

Additionally, hiring different-abled individuals is not only the right thing to do, but these employees also play an important part in helping develop inclusive products and practices. Microsoft ensures that hiring managers have completed disability etiquette training to make sure that applicants with disabilities have a positive interview experience. 

“We also invite our candidates to meet with other employees with disabilities at Microsoft before their interviews to give them the opportunity to network.” Mayberry says. “And we allow candidates during technical interviews to code on personal devices, which provides an extra level of comfort and also ensures that they’re able to use any assistive technology that they’re familiar with.” 


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 11 percent of the undergraduate student population in the U.S. has a disability. Since those who graduate have a higher probability of finding employment, it is important to offer them the assistance they need to succeed. To do so, some recommend evaluating an institution’s website for accessibility of screen readers, the use of closed-captioning for all videos, and prominently displayed accommodation contact information for ease in seeking assistance.

Other disabilities, including ADHD, dyslexia, depression, and anxiety, also have an impact on students’ educational and workforce experience. The Job Accommodation Network, a technical assistance center for people with disabilities that is funded by ODEP, provides a list of common tips for accommodating their needs:

● Allow additional time to take exams.

● Provide a quiet area for taking exams.

● Provide a note-taker, or allow the student to record lectures.

● Allow the student to use stress relief aids such as a stress ball in class.

● Assign a private dorm room.

Individuals with disabilities want to be treated fairly and with respect, and they want to contribute to society. Providing employees and students with reasonable accommodations, educating all employees on disability etiquette and laws, and celebrating the uniqueness of all people will help build a more inclusive environment — which, studies show, leads to increased productivity, satisfaction, and profitability.

Julia Méndez, SHRM-CP, PHR, CDP, CELS, CAAP, is principal business consultant in the Workforce Compliance and Diversity Solutions Division for PeopleFluent Research Institute. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. This article ran in our October 2018 issue.