COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have created an opportunity for many companies to re-examine the gap between what they say when addressing marginalized communities and how they treat them, and the Disabled Community is no different. Current work from home policies have proven that employers can accommodate employees with disabilities, whether physical disabilities, deaf or hard of hearing, or visually impaired.
We are not a small proportion of the population – worldwide, there are 1.5 billion of us. Yet in the U.S., only 34.9 percent of working-age people with disabilities were employed before COVID, versus 76.9 percent of working-age people without disabilities.
Now, as we move toward a more diverse, equitable and accessible world there is still progress to be made. Below, I have outlined a few of the challenges employees with disabilities face– and how employers can help.
Deaf or hard of hearing employees need their own masks
Hearing impairments are not rare – an estimated 60 million Americans live with hearing loss. So how can employers help them? It depends on the form their impairments take.
It is a standard quarantine health practice, but wearing a mask muffles your speech, making it more difficult for people who are deaf to understand you. It also prevents individuals from reading lips. For the hard of hearing, placing a mask over a hearing aid or cochlear implant can be difficult, leading some to remove their devices entirely. One solution is to ensure these employees are allowed to work from home until there’s a vaccine or until they feel comfortable to return to work. Another solution is to provide masks specifically made for the deaf, which allow people to view a speaker’s mouth through a clear panel. If you have an employee who is deaf or hard of hearing, you should be ordering them for the office.
Coworkers of deaf or hard of hearing employees should also consider learning some basic gestures from their local sign language. We all know “Hello”, even if we don’t realize it. Further, touching your left ear with one finger, then the left corner of your mouth is an American Sign Language (ASL) speaker’s way of telling you they’re deaf, and pointing two fingers to their left, then making an arc to their right indicates they’re hard of hearing. There are also plenty of free transcription apps available, many specifically designed for the hard of hearing, including Live Transcribe for Android and Transcribe Speech to Text on iPhone.
The visually impaired need more than guide animals
There are plenty of statistics out there – did you know that 55 percent of communication is nonverbal? However, you don’t need me to write that to know that words aren’t everything. So how can companies accommodate visually impaired employees in our current environment?
Employees can start by identifying video callers by name during conference calls, especially when hosting calls between strangers. They can share presentation slides ahead of time, so that visually impaired employees can read the slides in their own way, whether it’s through braille, large print, or audio. And companies must ensure websites, especially employee portals, are accessible and ADA compliant.
Employees with physical disabilities need more than a button
Too many employers think they’re accommodating employees with physical disabilities by installing a ‘handicap’ door button and calling it a day. Now that we’re living through a pandemic, many employees without disabilities are no doubt grateful for those buttons, but that makes the buttons as unsanitary as the doorknobs they’re no longer touching. And unlike employees without disabilities, employees with disabilities can’t avoid using them. To accommodate employees with disabilities, employers need to make sure they have access to personal protective equipment such as pointers that makes accessibility buttons safer to touch.
But accommodating employees with disabilities is about much more than a button. In the U.S., removing barriers to accessibility can be deducted as a business expense worth up to $15,000 per year. Employers should make sure that when everyone returns to work, their offices meet SAFERhome standards – which, companies will no doubt be pleased to know, account for flexibility, safety, and cost savings in addition to accessibility.
Like with the Black and more recently LGBTQ+ Communities, the Disabled Community has long been name-checked when drafting diversity policies, but with little understanding of what accommodating us actually means. Please consider this – and the preceding guidelines – next time you find yourself collaborating with an employee or coworker with disabilities, and keep following Porter Novelli for more continuous learning.