Disability is Part of Diversity: Embracing It Can Bring Out The Best In People and Their Organizations

Ruth Rathblott

Hiding oneself is probably one of our most painful but universal experiences. We do it every day, in small ways. It’s painful because it creates stress, anxiety, a sense of “being found out,” of being told we’re a fraud or imposter – or, worse, that who we are is something awful and not to be displayed. But, what’s the cost of hiding? Well, we never become our whole, authentic, vibrant selves – we can’t offer as much, we can’t connect as much. And, like everyone else, I hid, too. I have a physical disability – a limb difference – that I hid personally and in professional settings throughout a large part of my life.

But, I overcame that reticence because I realized the cost was simply too high. In speaking with Julie Kae, Qlik’s VP of Sustainability and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I), about my speaking event at Qlik, we discussed how that cost – of sacrificing our most whole selves, our diversity, by not recognizing disability – is also too high a cost for society and for organizations. We also discussed Qlik’s DE&I work, which had touched upon my career when I was the CEO and President of Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF). There, I had the opportunity to work with Julie and Qlik, whose software solutions helped reconcile communication challenges with HEAF’s development, operations and student databases. This technology solution enabled HEAF to position itself better to fulfill its mission: changing the lives of underserved young people, primarily students of color, beginning in middle school and continuing to college and beyond.

Now, providing educational access is a crucial area of DE&I. And, it’s essential to remember DE&I is a larger umbrella than we tend to think – it also includes disability, which cuts across practically all commonly understood DE&I domains (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation). Thus, disability is truly intersectional. And there’s no better time to address this aspect of DE&I than National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) – this month – with the purpose of educating others and ourselves about disability employment issues and celebrating the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities. The fact that I spoke to the company as a whole during this month-long observance is a testament to how Qlik continues innovating how it conceives and executes DE&I.

This year’s NDEAM theme is “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion.” This challenges us to really interrogate inclusion. What does it really mean? For me, it means embracing differences in the broadest possible sense, including all forms of disability. I state all forms because someone could have a visible physical disability or an invisible mental health challenge, which many people may hide because of the ongoing stigma attached to mental health and neurodiversity in the workplace, school and elsewhere. In fact, I had a close friend who was told not to mention a mental health challenge on their college admissions essay, as schools were worried about having students with mental health issues on campus. Furthermore, in numerous surveys, workers report not feeling comfortable telling their supervisors about a disability for fear of being relegated to lesser tasks, being passed up for promotions, or being seen in some way as “less able.”

These fears aren’t unfounded. It’s still the case that some companies’ employment practices demonstrate a belief that accommodating workers with disabilities would be costly or onerous. However, the research shows that’s not the case. A 2020 paper in the Journal of Business and Psychology reported that accommodations were essentially cost-effective, helped retain employees, and improved employee productivity – in short, having workers with disabilities was better for the bottom line. Research also shows that negative perceptions persist, even despite this evidence and that reversing this trend requires an internal cultural shift within organizations.

What can we do about this? How can we truly appreciate and celebrate the fullest dimensions of disability in the workplace, lift up our workforce, prompt discussions, to make our coworkers feel comfortable telling us about themselves? We can recognize we are not homogenous physically or mentally – and that’s a good thing. As a person with a disability, I can tell you I had to find creative ways to hide my limb difference, and I’m sure others with disabilities had to be similarly innovative. In meetings, at whiteboarding sessions, or during a brainstorm, a person with a disability – someone who has a different perspective by virtue of their physical or mental difference – could come up with solutions to business-critical problems. Think of Alan Turing, widely seen as the father of modern computing, who is believed to have had autistic spectrum disorder. His contributions during WWII have been calculated to have saved millions of lives. His disability did not lessen those contributions; in fact, his disability may have provided him with the focus needed to break Enigma.

So, we should stop and think, reprocess our attitudes, institutionally and socially. I’m not inviting people to prod coworkers into “coming out,” so to speak. I’m not saying we should enact a blame game, criticizing others for their insensitivities to those with disabilities. That never works. What works is what I’m doing in this blog post and what I spoke about this month. It’s about making it clear that one should never make assumptions about those with disabilities, visible and invisible ones, particularly as it relates to their ability to get the job done. People with disabilities are no less able. But, perhaps most important of all, they are no less human, and they have the same fundamental yearning we all do as social beings – to be seen, heard, to be fully themselves, and accepted.

Do you think #disability is part of #diversity? Inspirational speaker @ruthrath challenges us to really embrace disability in order to grow our people and our organizations


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