A Q&A With Beyond-Impact’s Tara Cunningham

How Leaders Can Champion Disability Inclusion in the Workplace

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on how we live and work has created opportunities for organizations to pivot their practices and create more inclusive and equitable spaces. One of the areas in most dire need of improvement is workplace accessibility for employees with disabilities and who are neurodivergent.  

About 61 million adults in the U.S. live with a disability, whether visible or invisible. According to a study from Coqual, thirty percent of white-collar employees also have a disability, but only  3.2% of employees self-identify as having a disability to employers. Moreover, just 13% of companies have disability-specific inclusion initiatives, which indicates a significant gap in organizations looking to build more inclusive cultures.

Closing this gap and creating more equitable workplaces requires that leaders ensure their policies and practices account for the needs of employees with disabilities and who are neurodivergent. During National Disability Awareness Month in October, Kindred sat down with Tara Cunningham, Founder of Beyond-Impact, to share key opportunities for organizations of all kinds to engage current employees with disabilities, examine existing policies, and develop new programs to ensure they are inclusive for all. With Beyond-Impact, Cunningham works with organizations and financial institutions to expand their definition of diversity, equity, and inclusion to include people with disabilities in their policies, practices, and products. See what Tara had to share with the community below. The interview has been slightly edited for length. 

Kindred: Hi Tara, thanks for joining us! What brought you to the work you’re doing today, and what’s the first piece of advice you’d give to corporations looking to build more inclusive workplaces for folks with disabilities or who are neurodivergent?

Tara Cunningham: While living in Ireland, I became aware of the lack of services for people with disabilities and invented what became Ireland’s first internationally accepted best practice in speech and language therapy. I’m not a speech and language pathologist; I listened to what kids with disabilities and their families wanted, and shock, horror, it worked.  

The same holds true for corporations looking to build more inclusive workplaces for neurodivergent and people with disabilities, so when I recently met with an 80,000 employee multinational organization looking to bring in a neurodiversity inclusion program, that’s where we started. They sent out an anonymous diversity and inclusion survey, and only two employees admitted to having a disability. What became clear is that the culture of this company did not allow for their employees to feel safe enough to admit they had a disability, which means their employees do not feel safe to bring their whole self to work, which in turn equated to unmotivated employees and a high turnover rate. 

To address this, the company has to create a disability inclusion program and listen to its neurodiverse and disabled employees. That would be my first piece of advice, because in my experience, once companies announce a disability inclusion program, people begin to feel safe and self-disclose and contribute to building more effective policies. 

K: The world of work has changed forever, thanks to the pandemic. What impact has the pandemic had on workplace inclusion as it relates to disability?

TC: Physically getting to work is one of the largest barriers people with disabilities face — from subway stops without working elevators to bus routes without accessible buses. Disabled talent in suburbs or rural areas do not even have the luxury of public transportation. Flexible hours allow people to rest, decompress, or work during the times the person is more productive.

Even though people with disabilities have asked for work from home and/or flexible hours for decades, pre-Covid, companies refused to accommodate WFH requests for reasons varying from security risks and lack of team building to the perception of lost productivity. Covid has proven WFH and flexible hours are good for everyone.  

With this new normal, the time is now for smart companies to widen their talent net, including people with disabilities, and allow WFH and flexible hours.  

K: It’s becoming clear that the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on individual health can be severe in some cases. How do HR, DEI, and people leaders need to shift their thinking to ensure they’re meeting the needs of employees who may be dealing with these issues?

TC: Employee retention is critical to a successful business, so this is going to be THE question for HR, DEI, and leadership post-Covid. Approximately 15,000,000 Americans are suffering from long Covid; the majority are aged 20–50 years old, the prime working years. WFH and flexible working hours will be the main accommodation required for these individuals.

President Biden also announced long Covid sufferers are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504, and Section 1557 if it substantially limits one or more major life activities. A person with long COVID has a disability if their condition or any of its symptoms are “physical or mental”. Finding accommodations is not just good business, it is the law. Keep checking the Department of Justice, which is updating the legal requirements regularly.

WFH and flexible working hours, bring-your-own-devices policies, and tailored compensation packages will be crucial as these employees, or their family members, live with their new normal. Again, companies providing flexible policies for all employees will be the place great talent wants to work.

K: How can common existing policies like WFH be thought of in a new context and used as inclusive or accommodating practices?

TC: We have seen a huge shift of employees moving to companies embracing inclusive and accommodating work practices.

The Great Resignation is happening to companies refusing to acknowledge the seismic shift Covid created in the way we live and work. Going back to “the way things were before Covid” is impossible. Those not recognizing this are facing low employee retention and losing the war for talent.

HR and DEI teams would benefit from looking at their company from a disability perspective to review the following policies:

  • Equal opportunity policy: Many people with physical disabilities have had terrible experiences during in-person interviews. Although they perform well enough through the phone, video, skills-based test, the moment the interviewer sees the white stick, wheelchair, etc., the interview is brief, and they do not get the job.
  • Work schedule and rest period policies: These policies are not helpful, as we have seen from the Great Resignation. Employers need to move away from time at the desk to work outcomes and productivity. For example, Netflix promotes “ Time Away.” There is no prescribed 9-to-5 workday, and employees can take time off as they see fit, as long as they meet their outcomes. 
  • Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies: Many employers do not allow outside technology to be brought into the campus, and this can become a barrier for employment. A blind or visually impaired person may require the use of their own laptop, as its settings are exactly what the individual requires.
  • Compensation and benefits policies: Benefits policies should take into account that more than 15% of the world’s population has a disability. These folks and their potential caregivers (who may be your employees) require a different approach to benefits. Special Needs Advisors, like Planning Across the Spectrum, provide advice on benefits, resources, potential obstacles, and next steps to enable independence. For example, potential tax deductions for qualified disability expenses. Every state has different laws and guidelines around disability benefits. It’s important to get advice from a qualified financial advisor—preferably one who has a disability.

K: Turning to overall recruitment and retention of diverse candidates, what practices would you recommend employers implement to ensure they’re reaching qualified candidates beyond utilizing traditional channels?

  1. Look at your job descriptions for corporate speak or language. The question to ask yourself is, “If my grandma read this, would she know what I do?” If the answer is no, your job description is leaving neurodivergent and first-generation BIPOC college graduates out of your talent pool.
  2. Remove “ability to communicate both verbally and written” and “ability to work well within a team”. These two statements are on every job description and typically make it difficult to engage disabled, neurodivergent, and first-generation BIPOC talent.  
  3. Review your interview protocols. Are the questions open-ended and easily understood?  For example, an autistic person who outshone his peers in Excel answered “no” to the question “Do you understand how to use Excel?” When he said no, the interview ended. We asked the interviewer to ask the candidate, “What is your favorite part of using Excel?” to which the candidate dove into the exciting world of pivot tables. He did not know EVERYTHING about Excel, so he answered honestly, no.  

K: What else is important for businesses to keep in mind as they advocate for policy reform, create new cultural norms, and overhaul the current lack of access to inclusive workplaces among the disabled community?

TC: Businesses have a unique opportunity here to change, “This is the way it’s always been” to “We know this isn’t working; let’s use this time to really make changes in the way we work.”  

Ask yourself, “If you had a magic wand, what would you change about your job?” Quite likely, you either thought of a process or policy you feel is useless. It probably is. If it’s annoying to a neurotypical, it’ll break a neurodiverse person. Get to work!

Elizabeth Kneebone

Published on October 29, 2021