Fighting the Blight of Covid-19 on Disability Inclusion

TD employee at computer

Do I have enough time? I am going to admit that was my initial thought when I was asked to serve as an executive sponsor of the Individuals with Diverse Abilities area of focus at TD Bank a few years back.

As a parent of a disabled son, helping to advance diversity and inclusion across a company that is deeply committed to the cause would be a high honor, but 24 hours a day are often not enough to strike a balance between work and home. Would I be able to take on the responsibility while contributing in a meaningful way? I'll leave the answer to that question to others.

What I can say is that my role on the team has changed my life. It has more than renewed my sense of purpose to help empower people of all abilities to overcome obstacles and achieve their full potential and loftiest ambitions at work. It is simply one of the best decisions I've made in my career.

As we now commemorate the 75th observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) this October, and after celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I am grateful to TD and my purpose-driven colleagues for paying it forward, and for making a significant impact during the most devastating global health crisis in modern history.

Inclusion: Looking Back, Leaning Forward

After decades of sluggish starts and setbacks, the disability inclusion movement achieved a major milestone back in 1945, when Congress declared the first week of October: “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” In 1962, the word “physically” was dropped to embrace all disabilities. And in 1988, Congress expanded the recognition from a week to throughout October. Since then, NDEAM has honored American workers with disabilities, reminding employers to promote inclusive hiring practices.

This year as NDEAM celebrates “Increasing Access and Opportunity,” it's clear that the push toward disability inclusion has never been more pressing. Since March 2020, one in five workers with a disability had lost their jobs compared to one in seven in the general population, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Here's another concerning statistic: as of August 2020, only 21% of Americans with a disability of working age were employed, compared to 67% of those without a disability according to the Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy.

Given the global health crisis, disability inclusion demands nothing short of a profound and pragmatic commitment across American workplaces. The need for speed cannot be overestimated.

Should we fail to rise to exigent circumstances, people with disabilities will suffer historic blows, unraveling the dramatic gains of the last several decades.

John Pluhowski with winners of Special Olympics

Here are six ways to promote workplace inclusion during (and after) National Disability Employment Awareness Month:

1. Review Company Policies. Now is the time to review your company’s policies and ensure your organization is fully committed to promoting an inclusive workplace. Check out Inclusion@Work and read the first section, “Lead the Way: Inclusive Business Culture.” If you feel there are gaps in your company’s existing policy, reach out to your HR colleagues for guidance on how to demonstrate the business value of promoting an equitable workplace to executive leadership and how to implement a step-by-step program that drives workplace inclusion in real time.

Encourage your company to become a corporate partner of Disability:IN, the global leader in advancing disability inclusion and equality in the workplace. Join the ranks of more than 200 leading global brands by participating in the Disability Equality Index (DEI), the most comprehensive benchmarking tool for disability inclusion. No doubt, partnering with both will supercharge your company’s commitment to inclusion with current and prospective employees.

2. Establish an Employee Resource Group: Creating a safe space for employees to connect with people with similar backgrounds and interests is not only good for morale and wellbeing, but it can serve as an invaluable asset for your company to understand the needs, concerns and objectives of people with disabilities. The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion has a helpful toolkit for establishing and maintaining successful employee resource groups. If your company already has a disability ERG, NDEAM offers a variety of guides and tips to help you raise awareness and grow participation. At TD Bank, we drive disability inclusion from the top down and bottom up, measuring our results against well-defined, actionable outcomes. Most importantly, we recognize and learn from our shortfalls, and partner with people across our organization to do better.

3. Educate Employees: As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Since people don’t know what they don’t know, help employees understand why disability inclusion matters, and what each can do to create a more inclusive environment where people of all abilities can thrive and achieve their full professional potential. A great place to start is the "I Can" public service announcement and accompanying workplace discussion guide. I would also recommend contacting a local disability organization about workplace socially distanced training programs including online tutorials.

4. Push the Play Button: Develop a simple Intranet page devoted to disability inclusion along with a monthly newsletter. Invite employees to participate by sharing their stories, like that of colleague Caitlin Messick: “Clearly, I am in a wheelchair, but I don't see the chair as a hinderance but rather a tool for freedom. What really matters is how you bring yourself to the table and tell your story.”

Welcome your employees to tell their stories in their own words – especially in video. Include articles and information about your company’s inclusion policies and the process for requesting reasonable accommodations. Be sure to recognize the contributions of employees with disabilities – as well as the allies who support them. Share your company’s achievements alongside your challenges on social media, leveraging hashtag #NDEAM throughout the month of October.

5. Support Disability Mentoring Day: Develop a hands-on program that builds mentoring relationships for employees with disabilities, including job shadowing and ongoing learning and growth opportunities. Nationwide, this day is observed on the third Wednesday of October, but I encourage you to make this a featured part of your calendar. Even in the dog days of social distancing, we can zoom up a robust mentoring program. We at TD recently launched our own virtual Enabling Leaders Mentoring Program in partnership with The Humphrey Group. It offers mentoring to colleagues who identify as having a disability and who want to grow their careers.

6. Ask, Listen, Learn, Repeat: While annual scorecards can be very satisfying, they rarely provide a comprehensive real-time view of your progress and issues. The best way to assess and improve your inclusivity is to anonymously survey your employees on a quarterly to semi-annual basis and find out what’s working and not working. Survey results should be openly shared with employees along with action items the company will take to address areas of concern. Transparency is crucial to securing employee trust and demonstrating that you are fully committed to creating an inclusive workplace.

Be Bold. Be True. Believe.

During this time of unsettling social upheaval, political unrest and critical health risk, it is more vital than ever to support those who disproportionately suffer the blows of employment inequality and, with it, economic fragility. If we fail to expand our efforts to support disability inclusion in the workplace now, we risk backsliding three-quarters-of-a-century of painstaking progress.

The bottom line: we must establish work cultures where people of all backgrounds and abilities feel valued, respected and supported, and where talent is as diverse as the customers and communities we proudly serve. After all, talent doesn’t discriminate, neither should we.

So, the next time you’re sitting in on an excruciating Zoom call, and your screen freezes while your roommate, dog, child and/or partner yelp in the background, take a deep breath. Remember how fortunate you are to have a job during this devastating crisis. Think about what you can do to ensure that your current and future colleagues of all abilities are given the same opportunities.


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