As non-disabled people, we can often feel the impulse to “help” the people around us who have disabilities. When we are taught compassion as children, we often hear the anecdote about the nice young man or young woman who helped a blind person across the street.
However, people with disabilities don’t always want the “help” of non-disabled people – at least, not in the way we typically assume.
The Problem of Helping
Here’s an example: Imagine that there is a shelf in your home that is too high for you to reach, and this shelf stores all the mugs. Now, every time you feel like coffee or tea, you have to ask someone taller to help you to get a mug – multiple times a day, every day. The solution here is clear: either get a step ladder, or move the mugs to a lower shelf. This is a basic example of an accommodation.
The disability community needs to be empowered with accommodations far more than they need to be helped. However, society leans more towards “helping” than empowering.
One of the main reasons is because of the infantilization of disabled people. Because of implicit biases, people often patronize disabled people and treat them as if they were children.
When you have a child, we don’t empower them to do adult things like using knives or driving – we help them with those things. Because of implicit bias and infantilization, we tend to do the same thing with disabled people. Instead of empowering them, we try to help. When we help instead of empowering, we unnecessarily limit people with disabilities to what they can do without non-disabled people.
Although as individuals there will be specific situations where we can help, as businesses and workplaces, we need to shift cultural mindsets away from helping towards empowerment.
Creating Equitable Workplaces
90% of companies have DEI initiatives in place, but only 4% of these plans include disability. We need to start including disabled employees when we’re working towards making our workplaces more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Empowerment of disabled employees falls under the “equitable” part of DEI. What can employers do to make sure that our workplaces are equitable for disabled employees?
- ERGs: Your disabled employees should have an Employee Resource Group to join. This gives them a safe space to talk openly with each other, as well as creates a formal and functional mode of communication between disabled employees and HR & DEI management.
- Accessibility: Making workplaces accessible, accommodating, and welcoming to disabled employees is key to having an equitable and inclusive working space. We recommend hiring disabled DEI & accessibility experts to assess where you can make changes. A few simple examples would be:
- More than one accessible bathroom
- Open and spacious office floors that can be moved around easily with mobility devices
- Flexible working hours and remote working
- ASL interpreters
- Benefits: Ensuring that your employees have good benefits, such as medical insurance, keeps all your employees safe and healthy. Joshin is a workplace benefit that empowers your disabled, neurodivergent, and disability-adjacent employees to feel supported when it comes to their needs. It’s a support system that focuses on personalized navigation, live coaching, and disability and neurodivergent training and education.
Whether we’re working to empower or practically help disabled people, the most important thing we can do is listen. Listen to what individual disabled people are asking for. Listen to what the disability community is asking for. Disabled people know what they need, and as we listen, we are able to make our workplaces, and society, a more equitable and inclusive place for disabled individuals.
Is your company ready to support disability and neurodivergence in workplace? Take our Readiness Assessment, and we’ll provide your company with a gap analysis and benchmark you against your peers.