Why our industry needs to better support people with disabilities and caregivers in the workplace

Employees clearly want companies to do more, but many organizations are disappointing them.

Half of employers in a study said accommodations cost nothing to implement. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

One in four adults in the U.S. has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet in the public relations and communications industry, with more than a quarter of a million people, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, understanding how to best support and “include” people with disabilities, as well as caregivers of people with disabilities, is an under-addressed area. Additionally, two-thirds of disabilities are invisible. so we may work with colleagues who have a disability we do not know about. 

As our industry is increasingly focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, all three components of DE&I are critically important for communicators in the workplace. A disability is one of the only areas of diversity that may affect any one of us at some time in our lives on a temporary or permanent basis. Also, many of us serve or have served as caregivers of people with disabilities. 

Last week, the Institute for Public Relations and Voya Financial published a comprehensive report, Disabilities in the Workplace: Culture, Communication, Support and Inclusion to better understand how organizations can support and communicate about disabilities and caregiving in the workplace. We surveyed 1,014 employees in January who work in organizations with 15 or more people.

When IPR decided to partner with Voya, a leader in the disability inclusion space, we were surprised to find a lack of research on the topic in our industry. Voya CEO Heather Lavallee champions people with disabilities and has a hiring and inclusion strategy. Voya’s support is also visible in its ads, social media and where its employees volunteer. Voya SVP of brand and communications and chief communications officer Paul Gennaro serves on the board of Disability:IN as vice chair and mentors students with disabilities in the workplace. 

Throughout my career, I personally have had a couple of temporary disabilities and have served as a caregiver to both of my parents, especially my mom before she died of a terminal illness nearly 20 years ago. Without the support of my organization and supervisor at the time, I would not have been able to spend the last month of her life taking care of her. Many of us have disability and caregiving experiences that affect how we show up in the workplace.

In the IPR-Voya study, there were some startling findings. First, 20% of surveyed employees with disabilities had not reported their disability to their organization, citing reasons such as shaming, ridicule or loss of opportunity. As our industry champions bringing your “whole self” to work, we need to do better for people with disabilities. This also affects retention, as nearly half said they left their jobs or cut back their hours due to their disability.

Based on the findings, below are actions that organizations can take to make a difference and help our industry better support and include people with disabilities and caregivers in the workplace:

Feature people with disabilities in promotions and on social media

Despite nearly three-quarters (73%) of employees saying they want to see people with disabilities represented in commercials, advertisements and social media, only 36% said their organization actually features people with disabilities on these channels.

Voya has conducted campaigns prominently featuring people with disabilities and caregivers. According to Gennaro, disability inclusion has been a key aspect of Voya’s culture and an important focus of brand, communications and marketing strategies and tactics during the past several years. 

Celebrate the organization’s commitment to people with disabilities

Companies must walk the talk. Employees were more likely to feel their organization communicates more effectively internally about disability accommodation programs and policies (59%) than how well it publicly celebrates its commitment to supporting individuals with disabilities (53%). Also, 40% of respondents were not familiar with their organization’s position on disabilities in the workplace. 

Employees want to see executive leadership talk about people with disabilities and how the organization is supporting their colleagues. Additionally, organizations need to communicate these programs to all employees and talk more about disabilities in the workplace, decreasing the stigma around it.

Offer educational opportunities for managers and coworkers to better support colleagues with disabilities

Employees want to learn more about how to better support their colleagues with disabilities and caregivers. More than half of the employees without disabilities (53%) and a significant majority of those with disabilities (72%) were interested in disability-related education within their organization. Additionally, companies can offer disability-etiquette curriculum and train managers on how to best support people with disabilities. 

One agency that has led the charge in this space is Current Global. The firm published an Accessible by Design website that includes guidelines for how to make communication more accessible, and it publicly champions supporting employees with disabilities in the workplace. 

Consider how ‘return to office’ affects employees with disabilities and caregivers
Nearly four in 10 employees with disabilities said they did not feel their organization is providing them with the best resources, benefits and flexibility to succeed in their positions. Also, fully remote and hybrid employees consistently rate their organizations higher in terms of creating an inclusive environment and providing support for individuals with disabilities and caregivers. 

These are just a few ways that our industry can support employees with disabilities. Organizations benefit as well. A recently released report from the Job Accommodation Network said that “surveyed employers report that the benefits from making workplace accommodations far outweigh their associated costs.” The benefits included retaining valuable employees, improving productivity and morale, reducing workers’ compensation and training costs and improving company diversity. 

Supporting employees with disabilities does not cost a lot of money. Half of employers in the JAN study said accommodations cost nothing to implement, and 43% said the median one-time cost of accommodation was only $300. 

Gennaro said the IPR-Voya report speaks to the need for organizations and leaders to proactively include people with disabilities in brand, communications and marketing activities. Doing so not only responds to what employees and consumers are very clearly asking for from all companies, it also drives positive societal change by being inclusive of people with disabilities in the same way that companies are doing for other marginalized communities, which also happen to comprise the disability community.

By taking a few proactive steps and making the workplace a safer and more caring environment for people with disabilities and caregivers, we can improve not only diversity, but also retention and job satisfaction in our industry.

Tina McCorkindale is president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations. 

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