Strategies for creating a culture of inclusion for disabled workers

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Individuals with intellectual disabilities are often overlooked in the workplace, especially when it comes to positions of leadership, due to misconceptions that they cannot perform the same tasks as employees without disabilities.

“People with intellectual disabilities, the world over, are pretty much told very often that they're not worth a lot or they don't have a full contribution to make to society,” says Denis Doolan, chief of organizational excellence at Special Olympics International.

But achieving a culture of true inclusion that promotes diverse thinking can greatly benefit a workplace: organizations with inclusive cultures are two times more likely to meet or exceed financial targets, and six times as likely to be innovative and agile, according to data from Deloitte.

In an effort to promote more accepting work environments, Special Olympics has teamed up with Skillsoft to share how businesses can foster leadership in all of their employees, including those with intellectual disabilities.

“In working with Skillsoft we’re really trying to show that everyone has value, everyone can learn and everyone can make a contribution,” Doolan says.

Approximately 6.5 million people in the U.S. have an intellectual disability, a term used to describe someone who has certain limitations in cognitive functioning and skills, including communication, social and self-care skills.

“We have to help employers realize that everyone is capable of achieving tremendous potential, but we have to give them the tools to do so,” says Michelle Boockoff-Bajdek, Skillsoft CMO. “This is a cultural shift for a lot of companies, but the most valuable asset any company has is its people — all of its people.”

The first step in creating an innovative and inclusive workplace is to listen to those whose experiences and needs may be different than the majority of people within the organization, Boockoff-Bajdek says.

“When we recognize that there is value in learning from everyone in the room, we surface more diverse perspectives, we can foster new skills, we can actually build more innovative solutions,” she says. “That will ultimately drive customer value as well as employee satisfaction.”

Additionally, organizations should avoid getting trapped in a mindset of “this is how we do things around here,” Boockoff-Bajdek says.

“When we think about a willingness to adapt and accept failure is part of the process, it allows us to acknowledge and accept that everybody is going to make a contribution and learn from it,” she says.

As employers embrace these lessons, the impacts are felt across the board. Having a more inclusive workplace can improve employee retention and engagement, and boost revenue. Disability inclusive companies can gain as much as 28% higher revenue and yield 30% higher economic profit margins than their peers, according to data from Accenture.

One company that has been advocating for disability inclusion in the workplace is Voya Financial. As part of this initiative, CEO Rod Martin joined CEOs from Accenture, CVS Health, Intel, Microsoft and Walmart in a letter urging 1,000 Fortune CEOs to make disability inclusion a business priority in their 2020 strategic planning.

“Employers should be open to looking at their [inclusion] processes and revisiting them, and realize that they are in themselves, creating a barrier,” Doolan says. “If you're sitting there as a company waiting for people with diverse backgrounds to come through the door and to succeed without changing [your process], you're going to find it challenging.”

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