National Disability Independence Day commemorates the day the US passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA provides protection from employment discrimination as well as better access to goods, services, and communications for people with disabilities, including wheelchair-accessible bathroom stalls, braille signage, and audio pedestrian signals for deaf, blind, and low vision travellers.
Still, 32 years after passing the ADA, many barriers for people with disabilities exist. 911 is not accessible for deaf/disabled/non-speaking people. To qualify for supplemental security income (SSI), a needs-based monthly benefit that disabled folks receive from the government, recipients must not exceed resources over $2000, pushing them below the poverty line. Additionally, when people with disabilities marry their partners and combine assets and income, they lose their SSI benefits. The options in the United States come down to losing love and care or health and stability. The list goes on.
I write this as a young person with an invisible disability, a chronic fluctuating illness paired with many misconstrued and understudied comorbidities. I am fortunate to be able to work while battling my disability. I am privileged to have a voice at my organisation and a doctor who cares enough to help me through the years and across state lines. Some days I can’t communicate. Some days I can’t walk at the same speed as everyone else on the sidewalk. Some days I can’t walk at all. Some days, Costco is far too large, and I have to grab the store’s available scooters (if there are any). Other days, I can barely reach so far as to pull the sheets over my head, and that is where I stay until the pain goes away. The closed captions are always on, and the sound on the TV is low.
But this is not the only version of my disability. It’s the red clip-on glasses worn over my prescription lenses to ward off fluorescent lights. It’s me frantically checking my phone for a call from my doctor. It’s my anxiety about when the next flare-up, migraine or chronic pain attack will hit. It’s me missing most of high school and being told to drop out of college by professors who didn’t understand. It’s me embracing the comfort of remote work, where at home I can control the smells, lights, and sounds within my walls. In the office, on the commute, or even outside my own window – not so much.
It’s about not knowing where it is appropriate to communicate your disability—will talking about it make it easier for others to open up? Will it do anything to help change the fact that people with disabilities make up for 12% of the working population yet account for more than half of those living in long-term poverty? Or will it create discomfort for those who face large barriers of healthcare disparity or are in workplaces that don’t allow flexibility?
It seems that the more people who are not ashamed to say, “I have a disability,” the sooner we will be able to address the big picture issues like adding an equally efficient text option to 911 or giving marriage equality to disabled individuals. And employers –both brands and agencies - can play a crucial a role in providing day-to-day support for their employees with disabilities. Here’s how:
Step one of building a work community that advocates for people with disabilities is eradicating the notion that asking for help or accommodation is equal to a personal failure. It isn’t. So, let’s normalise it. Encourage open dialogue and education. Make the process of requesting an accommodation, using an aid, or utilising available benefits like wellness stipends or telehealth counsellors as easy and transparent as possible.
An open communication channel between managers, HR, and people with disabilities is essential. With a safe space for honest, empathetic communication, it becomes easier for a person with a disability to identify their experienced limitations.
Inclusivity training often overlooks education about the disabled community. However, for managers to recognise and handle scenarios where an employee may be struggling, they must understand what to look for. And at the functional level, client work should be accessible to and inclusive of people with disabilities. So, train everyone to make accessible and inclusive business decisions. Google All In is a great resource for getting started with inclusive marketing. Build it into every SOW.
The accommodation requested for one person’s limitation may also benefit others. If an accommodation is tangible, like noise-cancelling headphones or a quiet work zone for the sensory-sensitive, make these tools available and accessible to anyone. Not everyone understands or is aware of the tools available, and not everyone feels comfortable asking for help or information. Whether it’s walking desks in the office, medical leave, wellness stipends, or flexible spending, find a way to get the word out that help is possible.
Harassment based on disability is illegal, but protection and allyship are bigger than simply not harassing. Protection should include education on the wide variety of disabilities, how we talk about disability, and the language and stigma surrounding those with varying disabilities.
Yes, it’s called Disability Independence Day. But it doesn’t mean any of us should be alone when it comes to creating an accessible workplace. The more inclusive and empathetic our workplace is, the better equipped we will be to Destigmatise, Communicate, Assist, Share and Protect those with disabilities in the workplace.
Radel Huley (she/her/they) is a copywriter at Jack Morton. Since joining Jack in 2020, following the inaugural Camp Jack bootcamp, Radel has made her mark on both the Chicago office and the agency overall. Outside of the extraordinary work she has done for healthcare clients and brands including Molson Coors, Cheez-It and McDonald’s, Radel also sits on our Global DEI+B Council and has worked diligently as a 'professional disrupter'-- pushing boundaries to create a more inclusive environment for traditionally underrepresented and marginalised people, which earned her an internal award last year for exemplifying our core value of respect.