Key Considerations for Building an Inclusive Work Environment for Individuals with Disabilities

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Mendez_newOctober marks National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This year’s theme is “#InclusionWorks,” and employers are encouraged to demonstrate their support for the inclusion of individuals with disabilities in the workplace.

A major way that companies can demonstrate inclusion is by maintaining a workplace that provides reasonable access and accommodations for applicants and employees with disabilities. The following are some questions employers should ask themselves to help ensure an inclusive work environment:

Is your organization’s website accessible?  All federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding are required to be 508 compliant with regard to accessibility of websites for individuals with disabilities. Some states and countries also require websites to be accessible. In addition, many companies are voluntarily choosing to be 508 compliant in order to break down barriers and allow all internet users the ability to navigate their websites, as well as conduct business and apply for jobs online.

For federal contractors and subcontractors required to abide by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, a prominent notice must be placed on their company’s website giving instructions on how an applicant needing an accommodation in order to apply for a job can contact someone at the organization; the company can list either a phone number or an email address. As a best practice, those receiving calls or emails should be properly trained on etiquette for communicating with individuals with disabilities and made aware that the accommodation should be tracked for purposes of providing information upon request to federal agencies, in case of an audit or complaint investigation. Responses to requests for accommodations should also be completed in a timely manner.

Is the place where you are conducting an interview accessible?  Not only should the application process be accessible, but an employer should also make sure the site where the interview will take place is accessible for individuals with disabilities. Make sure there are ample handicapped parking spaces, ramps to get to the building, and electronic doors or doors that can be easily opened by someone in a wheelchair or with limited use of his or her hands. If the location of the interview is on an upper-level floor, does the building have working elevators?

A best practice would be to offer instructions ahead of time to applicants to make it easier for those who need it to request assistance during the interview process and to notify them where handicapped parking is located, along with any ramps and elevators. This step could also include asking candidates whether they need any accommodations as part of the interview process, such as having a sign language interpreter on hand, needing additional time to take written tests, or having forms available in braille or large print.

If the person is hired, is the onboarding process accessible? 

It is not unusual for organizations to be so focused on attracting individuals with disabilities and ensuring that the application and hiring processes are inclusive of all people that they overlook whether a new hire’s experience after receiving the acceptance letter is inclusive. In this electronic age, it is important to keep in mind that the onboarding process — which includes signing up for benefits, submitting emergency contact information, and reviewing company policies and procedures — should be easily accessible to all.

Many of the accommodations often made by employers with regard to this process revolve around visual impairments, but companies need to keep in mind that someone with a hearing impairment might also need an accommodation if videos are used as part of the onboarding process or for ongoing employee training. These should be made available with closed-captioning or a transcript.

Is the disability such that the direct supervisor and first-aid personnel need to be notified? Under the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, an employee’s medical history or condition must be kept confidential. One exception to this rule is that if an employee requires an accommodation, his or her supervisor or manager can be informed of a medical condition. It is a best practice for an individual’s direct supervisor to be made aware of medical conditions such as epilepsy, diabetes, or severe allergies in order to ensure proper treatment for the individual or to inform medical teams in case of an emergency. If the company has first-aid personnel, they should also be informed of any medical conditions.

To build a compliant and inclusive environment for individuals with disabilities, organizations should evaluate the accommodations that need to be made throughout the entire talent management life cycle. They should ensure that the application process is accessible for all candidates and that an applicant’s experience during face-to-face interviews is inclusive. Furthermore, once a job offer has been extended, keep in mind that the experience an individual with a disability has after being hired is just as important as his or her experience beforehand. Therefore, companies need to not only ensure that their facilities are accessible, but that their training materials, software products, and any other tools the individual may need are accommodating as well.

By being thorough in the accommodations process, employers will be able to create an environment that is truly welcoming and inclusive for all employees.●

Julia Méndez, SHRM-CP, PHR, CDP, CAAP, CELS, is a principal business consultant for PeopleFluent, a human capital management company. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.