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What are the best ways to reduce the stigma around disability at work? 

By Thom Dennis, CEO at Serenity In Leadership and Jane Hatton, CEO of Evenbreak.

1.      Change the narrative. Most people perceive disability as a ‘tragedy’ and that we should feel sorry for someone who is disabled.  Disabled people are not objects of pity, frightening and helpless, but potentially resourceful and skilled people who have different challenges to other people. 

2.      Educate, educate, educate. Most misconceptions are built on myths and inaccurate presuppositions and lack of experience or willing. Replace myths with the facts and encourage warm inquisition.

3.      Open communication. Disabled people are often happy to be asked questions and are appreciative of others taking an interest in their story. Likewise, if you want to help a disabled person, ask them what they need. Make it ordinary conversation.  Replace fear with curiosity and understanding until there is no need for further questions and the disability just isn’t ‘a thing’ anymore.

4.      Be inclusive. Not having disabled people as part of a diverse workforce means there is a strong danger of lack of innovation and creativity.  Instead the group may develop the same mindset and goals, and simply agree with each other, rather than stretch the possibilities in thinking. Break down the barriers.

5.      Remove the fear and stigma.  We are all different and difference is to be celebrated.  That makes us interesting.  See the fear, feel the fear, and work through it instead of projecting it onto someone else.

6.      Avoid tokenism at all costs. Disabled people don’t need charity and they certainly don’t want to be the token disabled person in the workplace when they are as talented as the next person.

7.      Designing inclusion from the beginning is easier than retro fitting it. Don’t allow disability to be something you have ticked a box for.  Design for inclusion from the outset.

8.      Collaborate with disabled people. Invest in their good advice for meaningful input and to avoid tokenism.  Don’t second guess what disabled people need. Disabled people are crucial in educating about disability – ask them.

9.      Leaders must model positive behaviour. People emulate the behaviours of those they admire so leaders need to model by encouraging open, inclusive and curious behaviour. This makes them an ally and a part of the legacy of enabling, not disabling.   

10.   Recognise disabled candidates are premium candidates because they are often extremely resilient, good communicators, loyal to a business that treats them well and excellent problem solvers. They’ve had plenty of practice!

11.   Stop disabled people from limiting their own expectations. Giving equal opportunities to disabled individuals will directly lead to greater quality of life and control over their own lives.  Offer opportunities to reach for the sky.

12.   Just care a little more about people. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a moment and consider how you would you feel if people were clearly embarrassed or awkward around you, if you were segregated and isolated, or if society told you it would be better if you were someone else. Being aware of how we are behaving and how it can make others feel can have a monumental impact on each other’s self-esteem and confidence. It’s time to take the fear out of disability.