Living with multiple sclerosis, Learning to make the world accessible, Loving life with all of its challenges

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Disability Inclusion in the Workplace

Disability inclusion in the workplace cannot just be a catchphrase or a human resources training – if we are to truly have disability inclusion, it needs to be a mindset. A shift in how we think about work not just as employers and employees, but as consumers as well. It’s also something that as much as inclusivity might be trendy to talk about right now, needs a lot of work.

Let me take you back just a little bit to where this came from.

Not long ago Dre and I ventured to Brewability and Pizaability in Englewood, Colorado, a brewery and pizzeria that employees people with disabilities.

We had learned about the brewery through a story on 9news which had covered what had occurred targeting the brewery with hateful and ignorant messages about employing people with disabilities.First off, we’re  always interested in businesses that promote and support inclusion for persons with disabilities. Secondly, we were pissed, for lack of a better word, about people targeting the brewery for employing people with disabilities, and wanted to show our support.

There was a lot of emotion around who would  target a business for active and intentional inclusive hiring practices and why?  Unfortunately, the answer is targeting and excluding people from society because of differences from what we like to consider “normal” has a long and sordid history in America. That leaves the next question – how do we change this?

Let me first start off with the fact that Brewability is flat out awesome. Great service, great beer, great pizza, great atmosphere, great music… Seriously – it was the perfect patio to finish celebrating our anniversary weekend. If you love all of the previously mentioned and you’re in the vicinity, you should definitely pay them a visit.

On top of being a great place for beer and pizza, it is also the model of what it means to be an inclusive workplace. Given their premise that might seem like an obvious statement, but for as much as workplace inclusivity has been a hot discussion, what does it actually look like in action? Our visit to Brewability and really seeing how they put in action their philosophy made me realize that inclusivity is not a set of HR guidelines and Federal policies – it’s a culture that is created by those invested in it. More importantly, it’s a culture that requires everybody involved, not just owners or workers, but also the consumers, to be a part of.

There were simple accommodations that were obvious to the customer – ordering beer by the color rather than the name, ordering at the counter, a large bell to ring for service. Just some straight forward things that didn’t change our experience at all but allowed our servers to be successful. I’m sure there are plenty more accommodations behind the scenes that the average customer is not aware of, and that’s really how accommodations work. Everyone doesn’t need to know about everybody’s accommodations, but when they’re in place, things work.

There has been a fight, a very long and hard fight, for inclusive workplaces on many different levels. From race, to religion, to gender identity, to disabilities, our workplaces have not traditionally been welcoming to differences. If we think about consumers driving business, then how much responsibility do consumers have in not just accepting, but demanding diversity in the workplace as well?

The American’s with Disabilities Act has created the legal guidelines for employers to follow in hiring and workplace practices. Now, there is the argument that there’s plenty more to be done in this area, but the guidelines have been established and there is recourse on this end if discrimination is recognized.

Where there is no accountability other than personal ethics, is how we as consumers, co-workers, and a society view and accept people with disabilities in the workplace. It is this resistance that we see in actions like those from people  targeting Brewability, and this is where the conversation gets personal.

Having MS brings a series of blows and battles to Dre’s daily life, but perhaps one of the hardest on a mental and emotional level was losing the ability to do the job that he loves. It was the loss of going to a place that he loved being, interacting with employees and customers that he enjoyed being with, and also the sense of purpose and self-worth that comes with providing and contributing to our communities.

According to the bureau of labor statistics, in 2020 17.9 percent of persons with a disability were employed compared to 61.8 percent of those without a disability. Across all age groups and educational levels, persons with disabilities are far less likely to be employed and far more likely to be self-employed.

The stigmatization that comes with being disabled in our society carries a huge weight. For years, people with disabilities were separated from society, hidden in institutions and kept from the public eye. With the growth of the civil rights movement and the implementation of the ADA, laws and protections have slowly begun to change.

However, just as with other social justice movements, that doesn’t necessarily change the mindsets of the general public. As pointed out by the center for human rights and global justice, “since the creation of social benefits, disabled people have been stigmatized in society, oftentimes being viewed as either incapable or unwilling to work. Those who work are perceived as incapable employees, while those who are unable to work are viewed as lazy.”

Keeping those stigmas in mind, let’s for a second, discuss the idea of intersectionality and inclusivity. Intersectionality, as defined in a YW Boston Blog, is “a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. It takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face.”

There’s a variety of statistics we can talk about here, but the one that directly impacts us is the intersectionality of race and disability. According to the National Center on Disability and Journalism, African Americans have the highest rates of disability in the country, with just over 20% having a disability of some kind. We simply can’t ignore the stigma that has also perseverated through our society that African Americans who are on disability are lazy or simply don’t want to work.

So, let’s take a quick look at Dre’s case – an African American man with a disability. If you’re putting the pieces together you can imagine why he was incredibly hesitant to tell his workplace that he had MS before it absolutely made it impossible for him to work. For years he went to work trying to cover up his growing limp, his fatigue, the struggle to balance and stay safe in the kitchen. And for all of those years the stress if hiding his growing disability compounded the stress of his job. If you know anything about MS and stress, they don’t mix well, and the exacerbation that finally pulled him out of the workforce came after an incredibly stressful run at trying to keep up with some challenges at work.

This is not a blame game on his workplace, we don’t put any blame there, but it does beg the question, what if our mentality as a society was different and people were able to openly discuss their disabilities and challenges at work without the stigma that comes with that? What if he would have been able as a black man and a man with MS, to feel comfortable going to his employer and discussing accommodations to his job without fear of losing it?

That’s the conversation that businesses like Brewability have started. They have created a place where it’s safe to receive the accommodations for a disability, whether that disability can be seen by the rest of the world or not. In doing so, they have also created a place that brings out the discomfort of those in our society who don’t want to lose the stigma and the stereotypes that are so deeply entrenched within it.

It is time that we change these stigmas and stereotypes, and the only way to do that is for us as a society to recognize that inclusivity cannot live soley on legislation and employer accountability. Inclusivity requires a culture shift, and culture shift belongs to all of us. If we look at movements like the civil rights and LGBTQ, we see that this shift requires not just broad legislative work, but society as a whole demanding and accepting changes. Consumers are the most powerful drivers of the American economic system, and when consumers not just accept but demand inclusivity in our workplaces, things will change.

While we see society broadly jumping on board in causes such as special Olympics and March of Dimes, do we see the same level of passion, fight, and support in welcoming people with disabilities into our workforce? The language in the graffiti left outside of Brewability say it all – Autism and Beer don’t mix; Save our angels…. The condescending and ignorant message here might not be shared by everyone but it opens the window to what many people express when no one else is watching: someone with a disability needs to be protected and saved, not given the same opportunities in life as everyone else. And that is where exclusivity begins.

Our differences don’t make us less of a person, they make our living experience different. That’s it. But we have to be real here – segments of American society have struggled with accepting differences for as long as we’ve been a society. They have found that judgement and exclusivity give them a leg up in the power structure and that works for them.  Fortunately, the segments that strive for inclusivity have become more vocal, more organized, and have begun to bring about true change. We all know change comes with resistance, but changes are happening.

It’s now time for us to turn that focus and lens to inclusivity of people with disabilities in the workplace to not just legal ones, but  cultural ones. As Brewability shows us, this goes well beyond adaptations for people with disabilities – it goes to understanding, acceptance, and changes in behavior for consumers and co-workers.

This change requires each of us to reflect on our own behavior. When we see that someone has a disability what is our initial reaction? Do we look at people for what they bring to the workplace and recognize the strength in their different abilities and perspectives? Do we demonstrate patience and pause when someone handles a situation differently than we might traditionally do so or maybe slower than we are expecting?

Perhaps the even harder question – when we can’t see that someone has a disability do we pause and reflect if we notice them handling situations differently than we might? Do we think that perhaps they might be differently abled and are approaching things from that lens? Are we open to accomodations either as a consumer or a co-worker that we might not recognize as necessary for ourselves but allow people to be a productive part of our society?

Places like Brewability have created a safe place for people to be their authentic selves. They’ve created a place where people can safely have the accommodations that they need to be a successful and productive part of our society. Right now, this is not a reality for most workplaces – our goal as a society should not be for this type of workplace to be novelty, but for inclusion to be reality.  And we all have a part in making this happen.