10 Tips for Disability-Inclusive Collaboration at Work

10 Aug

While I’m not a human resources professional, and I don’t have extensive management training, I’ve worked a lot of different jobs. I’ve worked with disabilities and worked with people with disabilities, and I was a classroom teacher for several years. I’ve seen and experienced a lot of what does and doesn’t work for disability-inclusive collaboration. This isn’t just about playing well with others and avoiding fights on the playground, this is about enabling everyone to be outstanding and (just a reminder that this matters so very much) happy employees.

Based on these lived experiences, here are my 10 suggestions to support inclusive collaboration in the workplace:

1. Create an atmosphere where everyone feels welcome. This is something that whole books can (and are) written on. But to trim it down, I’ll say avoid anything that would make anyone feel unwelcome (telling racist or homophobic jokes, teasing someone about their hobby, acting superior or unfriendly), and do whatever you can to make it clear all are welcome (allergen-mindful luncheons, diverse holiday celebrations, introductions with pronouns).

2. Have multiple channels of communication. Accommodate cognitive disability, learning differences, neurodiversity, forms of anxiety, and different learning and personality styles with multiple pathways for communication. Some people will work best having an email to read and reread. Some prefer to listen via phone call, Zoom, or face-to-face. Others would like to take notes and write things down in their own words. I’ve worked with people who like an annotated doodle!

3. Let everyone work to their strengths. “Fair” isn’t everyone doing the exact same task because everyone is so very different. Diverse teams are so amazing because of all the unique skills within them, so do let everyone do their favorite thing whenever possible. It’s what they’re best at.

4. Remember some people work best alone, and that’s OK! A team member can participate in collaboration without sitting in a room with the group. They may not only prefer to work alone, but focus much better and truly thrive when they do. Carve off a piece of that big project, hand it off, and let them run with it!

5. Be a best listener. Give everyone a chance to be heard, and give value to what they’re saying. Remember, communication isn’t easy for everyone. Here is a great article about active listening and how to do it: Active Listening Skills in the Workplace

6. Have backup plans. Emergencies happen. Someone may be stuck in traffic. Someone might have a medical emergency. A caregiver for someone’s child with a disability may be a no-show. If someone is in charge of running a call, presenting a piece at a meeting, or giving a tour, establish ahead of time what the backup plan is if that person suddenly can’t be there. This not only keeps the event on track, but it assuages worries and panic.

7. Let people decide for themselves what they’re capable of. One of the key reasons people with hidden disabilities won’t disclose or “come out” at the workplace is to mitigate assumptions about what we are or are not capable of. The best way around this is to just never make assumptions, whether a disability is involved or not. Don’t speak about someone, as in “I’m not sure Becky would be up for that,” but instead, ask, “Becky, is this something you’d like to do?” (Notice I used “like to” rather than “can” because either way, Becky can say no, but the latter way is condescending.)

8. Include flexibility wherever possible. I love to declare that we folks with disabilities are the experts at our own disabilities. We know what we need to thrive. By providing any flexibility you can, we can put our expertise to work! Some ways to be flexible are:

  • meeting time of day
  • meeting location
  • size of group
  • who needs to attend which meetings
  • active (put on the spot to talk a lot) versus passive (being intentionally present) participation
  • deadlines
  • incremental deadlines
  • choice of tasks
  • team leader

9. Create an accessible space. Inclusive collaboration needs an accessible space! Not just wheelchair accessible: there is plenty more that can be done.

  • Create a scent-free zone.
  • Avoid florescent lights.
  • Be mindful of speaking too loudly or too quietly.
  • Make sure restrooms and exits are clearly marked.
  • Offer different types of seating and no shame for folks who choose to stand.
  • Keep a comfortable temperature in the space (have someone check a room well ahead of time).
  • Use trigger warnings.
  • Offer a virtual option.
  • Welcome support and service animals.
image of an inclusive space / inclusive collaboration space: seating area with different pieces of comfortable furniture facing each other and comfortable natural light
This space is in a Manhattan office is great for inclusive collaboration because of its multiple seating options and placements and warm natural light.

10. Allow for inconsistent energy and performance. Some people are entirely consistent. Every day, they can do and will do an equal amount of work. Others have (physical, mental and/or social) energy and ability that varies. This variability is a fundamental characteristic of many chronic illnesses and mental health diagnoses. But rest assured, on the days we feel our best, we truly optimize our surges of energy. When you see us doing less than normal, understand it all evens out. It’s especially important to understand and plan ahead for our recovery time when we step up and do something exceedingly physically or socially demanding, like a major presentation or special event.

More Ways to Support Inclusive Collaboration in the Workplace


4 thoughts on “10 Tips for Disability-Inclusive Collaboration at Work

  1. That’s an ideal situation, but not many businesses feel it’s worth the effort to go there. Even just walking into a business of people without disabilities. So many times I feel , if only they would give classes in communication, or talks on inspiration. Instead you see decreases in productivity, employees not getting along and poor interaction with clients. Jobs should all start with the outline you have set up, but for anyone. So many times I’ve seen employees escalating situations with their clients instead of deesculating dilutions. I’m sure though, it has alot to do with what’s behind the scenes in their actual businesses. It’s ashame you can’t train up others and offer this as part of an orientation for jobs everywhere.

    • Businesses do certainly fall short, but many don’t. Right now, I’m making my living doing this very thing! Speaking to businesses, supporting employees with disabilities and helping them serve customers with disabilities. More and more are seeking me out, so this is something that’s improving, just slowly. I just hope that those who want to eliminate diversity initiatives and professional roles at businesses and universities don’t get their way … because that’s who hires me.

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