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I recently caught up with a good friend after losing touch for several years.  We went to college together, traveled together, and shared many experiences together as active and ambitious young adults.  As we caught up, she told me that for years she suffered health challenges that progressively worsened and impaired her walking ability.  She uses an assisted walking device and has been “hiding” for several years as she battled her health condition and adjusted to living with a disability. She recently challenged herself to open up about her experience and advocate for people with physical and cognitive disabilities who are too often seen as medically flawed and therefore overlooked. This discussion was a much-needed reminder that DEI strategies are incomplete when they don’t include the interests of people with disabilities.  When we shift our understanding of disability from the medical model to the social model, we are compelled to create a strategy that encompasses people with disabilities.

The Medical Model of Disability

This model of disability views people without normalized physical and cognitive abilities as having a deficiency.  Our society largely functions based on this model and, as a result, isolates and devalues people with disabilities. Companies functioning based on this model may find it difficult to attract, retain, and engage employees with disabilities. This is not only counterproductive to their DEI goals, but it’s also bad for business.  A recent article shows half of neurodivergent employees say they want to quit their jobs or already have because they don’t feel supported. More studies show that neurodiverse talent is valuable for innovation in tech and that Gen-Zers value neurodiversity inclusion.  In addition, the sheer size of this group makes it a topic that won’t fade anytime soon. Reports reveal that 16% of the world’s population and 25% of those in the United States have some type of disability. It’s more important than ever for companies to develop a better understanding of how to attract and retain people with disabilities.

The Social Model of Disability

This model was borne out of the disability community and asserts that people naturally come with diverse physical and cognitive abilities. Disability is simply a part of the human experience. In this model, impediments don’t exist in the individual but in the environment around them. Much like race, gender, and other marginalized identities, society has been constructed with challenges that we have to dismantle if we want to have a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive system. It is this model that compels us to make room for disability in DEI.

We have a general understanding that DEI encompasses all marginalized groups, which includes people with disabilities, but in practice, we prioritize race and gender.  We do this because we have the history and data to support these plans, and we know we still have a long way to go.

What to Do

It’s time to make room for disability in DEI by bringing accessibility into the discussions that move DEI forward. Here are a few tips on how to do just that:

  1. Conduct an accessibility audit regularly and when your company moves or acquires a new physical location or online platform. Check for structural and symbolic barriers to your physical locations and digital barriers in your online platforms that can be a challenge for employees or consumers with disabilities.
  2. Expand your DEI training beyond unconscious bias and allyship into topics of neurodiversity and accessibility. Transform the way your employees view and talk about disability. Education goes a long way in destigmatizing disability in your workplace, products, and services.
  3. Include disability data in your anonymous DEI surveys so you can understand the needs of your workforce better and start tracking progress. Even with anonymous data, you can track sentiment, survey participation, and capture comments that reveal insight into the work you can do to be more inclusive of people with disabilities.
  4. Understand the intersections and dimensions. No two disabilities are exactly alike, and they impact people differently.  Continue to learn about different disabilities and understand that people’s experiences differ based on other aspects of their identity, such as their gender and the racial communities they come from.
  5. Establish your commitment.  A written commitment to supporting people with disabilities can attract more people with disabilities to your company. Be sure to back up your words by investing in benefits, accommodations, and programs that align with your commitment.

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The Editor

Ngozi Okeh is an experienced leader with a history of driving efforts to conceptualize, define, assess and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as strategic business processes. Ngozi is currently the Director of DEI at a leading marketing technology company where she develops and executes enterprise-wide DEI initiatives through rigorous strategic planning efforts, community partnerships, leadership collaboration, strategy evaluation, and careful management of communication and buy-in as well as policies and procedures.  Previously, she worked at an independent mortgage bank, where… View Profile