Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a polarizing and ever-evolving topic. For example, as of late, some experts have come to add a "B" for belonging, changing the acronym to DEIB. But for all the progress we have seen when it comes to DEI initiatives, there's one group still being largely left out of the conversation: those with disabilities.

When most people think of the word "disability," they might immediately think of a wheelchair user. However, the definition of disability is complex, and the conversation around it is constantly changing. Roughly one in four Americans, or 61 million adults, live with some type of disability. Some disabilities are visible, but many are not. Some disabilities are significant and hinder a person's ability to work for their entire lives, but many are still able to work regardless.

Until 1990, it was perfectly legal for a company not to hire a person solely based on their disability status. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, that changed. Yet, out of over 147 million employed people in the U.S., only 7.8 million of them have a disability. Many have aged out of the workforce – as of 2021, roughly half of all disabled Americans were over 65 – but many have not.

Though some companies have changed their hiring practices to actively include individuals from marginalized communities, those with disabilities still struggle to find work. In 2022, the Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that across all age groups, those with disabilities were far less likely to be employed than those without.

This could be for a number of reasons, but a potential one is that employers are wary of increased business expenses as a result of hiring a person who may have additional accommodation needs based on inaccurate preconceived notions about what disability means.

Not only does this put a strain on the disabled individual who is having a hard time finding work, but it also puts a strain on an already overstretched system of government benefits, which eventually trickles down to the individual taxpayer.

Truly Committing To DEI
The importance of DEI is clear:

  • Increased competitive advantage
  • Increased profitability
  • Increased morale and innovation
  • Decreased turnover

While many influential business leaders see the value in DEI, the conversation often doesn't include disability. This is a tragic oversight, though: workers with disabilities, like many other marginalized individuals, bring a unique voice and set of lived experiences to every conversation. They afford organizations the opportunity to achieve a wide variety of goals, including financial, growth, and purpose-focused goals.

Some examples include:
Retention It costs organizations between one-half to two times an employee's annual salary to replace that person. People with disabilities, however, tend to stay in their roles for much longer, resulting in a 90% increase in retention in organizations that include these individuals in their talent acquisition strategy.

Customer satisfaction Individuals with disabilities within organizations are uniquely positioned to understand the buying habits of other disabled people, as they make up one of the largest market segments in the U.S.

Adaptability and innovation Individuals with disabilities have, in many cases, been forced to find new ways to complete various tasks – tasks that most people without disabilities don't give a second thought. This means that many workers with disabilities are more likely to find new and innovative ways to solve problems.

Creating The Right DEI Culture
To create a culture that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive, organizations, and the individuals who work within them must confront their biases, whether they are conscious or unconscious.

There are many things an organization can do to create a culture that truly embraces the full spectrum of DEI:

Education Everyone within an organization should receive ongoing education about bias, especially those in leadership positions who are in charge of hiring.

Experiences Creating a positive workplace culture starts with experiences. Intentionally create a set of positive, standardized experiences that apply to everyone in the organization, whether it's giving more frequent feedback or implementing a recognition program, or something else to inspire employees.

Trust and accountability By encouraging accountability, and displaying it themselves, leaders can build an environment of trust. When workers trust each other, they behave like a cohesive team, regardless of race, gender, or ability.

Authenticity This doesn't mean everyone has to tell their coworkers their whole life story. It just means that there's space for everyone in the organization to be who they are without fear of judgment or retribution.

A company's culture cannot be truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive if an entire marginalized community is left out of the conversation. By expanding our worldview to see that disability isn't scary, we can see the innate value that those with disabilities bring not only to the workplace but to humanity at large. And, at the end of the day, having diverse hiring practices that include the disabled community is the right thing to do.

Jessica Kriegel is Chief Scientist of Workplace Culture at Culture Partners