5 ways to support employees who are disabled or chronically ill

People with disabilities and chronic illnesses still face discrimination and limited accommodation at work. Here’s how we can create a more accessible and inclusive workplace.

5 ways to support employees who are disabled or chronically ill

More than 1.3 billion people around the world live with some form of disability, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). In the US alone, over 53% of adults aged 18-34 live with a chronic illness, defined as long-term or permanent conditions like hypertension, depression, or diabetes.

Yet people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are still hired at vastly lower rates than non-disabled people. Unemployment rates range from 50% to over 90% in some countries and those with chronic illnesses and disabilities consistently struggle with lack of accommodations, fear of self-disclosure, and insufficient support systems.

At PFJ, we advocate for more human-centric workplaces through healthier and more inclusive policies and practices. In this post, we’d like to challenge you to consider the diverse needs of your workforce.

Here are five ways to be more inclusive of your employees who are disabled or chronically ill.

Educate yourself on what is okay and what is needed

The best changes begin with research. A few questions you’ll need answers to before you commit to any changes are:

  • What are chronically ill and disabled workers looking for in a supportive workplace?
  • What are their biggest challenges?
  • How can you go about improving your work systems and culture in a sensitive and accessible way?

Start by taking some time to learn more about these two communities, how they intersect, and what issues are top of mind for them at the moment. This will also help you identify knowledge gaps such as recent updates to accessibility laws. Consider joining groups of diversity and inclusion professionals or follow advocates on social media for further resources and support. If you aren’t sure where to get started, here are a few suggestions:

Just remember that when it comes to learning more about your employees’ needs, it’s important to be circumspect. For legal reasons, it’s not possible to go around asking current or prospective employees about their health conditions. Even if you know exactly what each person is dealing with, each individual will experience their condition differently, even those with the same diagnoses and challenges.

Also, be aware that if you are a company that operates partially or fully remotely, it’s important to address people’s needs both in and out of the office. Which brings us to the next tip:

Think beyond “remote-first” and “remote-friendly” to “remote-accessible”

“Remote-friendly” companies use working from home as a perk or occasional benefit and tend to have fixed locations, while “remote-first” companies are built around remote work with distributed teams.

A remote-accessible company takes the concept a step further: consciously implementing accessible tools or optimizing them for remote teams. A few examples of what that could look like:

  • Using Video call software that supports captioning and transcriptions
  • Making sure tools you use (or create) have screen reader software integrations
  • Building websites with accessible text, colors, and navigation
  • Supporting keyboard shortcuts to turn on or turn off common accessibility features

Many work tools such as Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams already have many of these features in place.

But true inclusion isn’t just about tools, it’s also about the systems surrounding those tools and how companies work to bring people together. Remote-first teams, for example, might blend team meetings, virtual hangouts, and in-person events to keep employees connected.

Remote-accessible teams might also choose wheelchair-accessible retreat locations, or make social events optional so people with energy-limiting conditions can opt out if needed. Or they might offer a wider range of home office equipment to fit different needs and work styles.

Consider your benefits through a disabled lens

Just as making remote work more accessible for all is crucial to true workplace inclusivity, it’s equally important that the perks and benefits you offer employees are inclusive as well. While a vast majority of companies offer health insurance, retirement plans, paid time off, and flexible work options, many still don’t vet these offerings to ensure everyone has equal access to them, regardless of ability.

Take a closer look at each of the benefits your company offers and consider these questions:

  • Does your healthcare insurance or system cover pre-existing conditions and include telehealth options?
  • Do the partners you work with to offer perks like gym or coworking memberships offer accessible facilities and virtual classes or resources?
  • Are your professional or personal development offerings accessible to those with disabilities?
  • Is the paid time off you offer negotiated based on individual needs, or do you automatically offer the same amount to everyone?
  • Does your home office stipend cover all tools and equipment that help your team members be more comfortable?

Build a chronic illness and disability-inclusive culture

Accessible work benefits can go a long way to ensure those with chronic illnesses and disabilities feel supported in the workplace, but their usefulness is limited without the backing of an inclusive, welcoming work culture.

“When I joined Customer.io, I was introduced to an internal group of folks dedicated to having conversations about how to be better allies in the workplace – and this is where I felt empowered to say the “d” word (disability) in a workplace setting for the first time.“

— Elizabeth Tancreti about her experience navigating work with a chronic illness

Every company’s approach to inclusivity will look different, but here are a few key components we hope to find in each of them:

  • Open communication policies so employees can discuss needs openly
  • Encouraging employees to take regular time off for better health and wellness
  • Company-wide education on preferred terms for disabilities and illnesses
  • Reasonable accommodations such as flexible schedules or job duties
  • Work-life programs to help employees balance professional and personal responsibilities

Give disabled/ill employees a seat at the DEIAB table

Last, but certainly not least, consider how you can best model and encourage disabled/ill representation in your company. Despite how popular diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies (DE&I) have become, just 4% of companies make diversity offerings inclusive of disabilities and illness, the WEF also found.

One way to increase representation is by actively hiring more people with chronic illnesses or disabilities. This, of course, requires the supportive infrastructure we’ve discussed so far to be in place already and clear policies and statements about equal employment opportunities.

Initiating internal resources like a disability and illness-focused employee resource group (ERG) or affinity group can also help you hire and retain differently-abled people. ERG founders and members can also aid DEIAB initiatives and work to ensure your inclusivity policies are up-to-date.

Also, make sure to include disability and chronic illness in any company diversity and inclusion policies and activities. Be sure to specifically add language like “disability,” “chronic illness,” “people with disabilities,” and “people with chronic illnesses”, etc.

The best thing about building a more inclusive culture and business? It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Accessible tools and systems have the capacity to better support not just your team members, but anyone else you work with regularly, from customers to freelancers, contractors, and vendors.

Where to begin?

If all this seems overwhelming to you, don’t worry. Finding effective and helpful ways to be inclusive takes time and effort and it’s okay to take one step at a time.

Being a “people-first” company is a great first step towards becoming an inclusive employer. PFJ aims to highlight companies who support their employees through:

  • Remote work opportunities
  • Asynchronous communication
  • Flexible schedules with sensible hours
  • A commitment to diversity and inclusion
  • And more

But these criteria are just the beginning. People-first companies have a unique opportunity to lead the way in diversity and inclusion while attracting a wider talent base—even as other organizations mandate a return to office.

We believe that people who're chronically ill or disabled will truly thrive in the workplace when employers encourage them to embrace a more personalized approach to work.

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