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Four Ways We Can Work Towards Creating Inclusive Workspaces

By Sarah Napoli, Project Officer, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Open Society Foundations, July 2020

Four overlapping yellow circles, each a slightly deeper yellow than the last. Text below reads: "Four Ways We Can Work Towards Creating Inclusive Workspaces"

When the pandemic hit the globe in early 2020, many organizations and educational institutions were forced to shift to remote work and learning within a matter of weeks. Some managed to do this quite smoothly, while others are still figuring it out months later. This shift to flexible working is something disabled people know well. (I use the term “disabled people” intentionally to highlight the social model of disability. ”People with disabilities” is also widely used.) We frequently have to adjust and modify our work environments quickly, especially when workspaces are often not designed for us.

In July 2019, the Open Society Human Resources Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) team brought me on board to fulfill their strategic theme of disability inclusion. What began with the launch of a Global Workplace Accommodations Policy (to ensure we are meeting national and international standards) has expanded to a more holistic approach of disability inclusion. The Human Resources DEI team has worked collaboratively with the Open Society Disability Inclusion Working Group, the Operations Management Group, and several programs across the network, such as the Human Rights Initiative, the Public Health Program, and the Open Society Justice Initiative, to refine our organizational approach to disability, and better support all staff as they seek to contribute their best work.

This year, we marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While this Act remains a vital piece of legislation that has paved the way for fair treatment of people with disabilities in the workplace, it is framed as a reactive law, one that is based in a biomedical frame of assistance. It uses the language of impairment and limitation, and albeit extremely useful, it does not give us the whole story of what is necessary. One can find similar legislation across the globe, such as the UK Equality Act of 2010.

Here are four ways of working together that I think are necessary to create dialogue around disability beyond legal definitions, allowing us to work towards more inclusive workspaces.

1. Accept that mistakes happen and use them to create a space for open and honest dialogue.

Too many organizations make the assumption that disability inclusion is already embedded in their culture; they are not intentional about embracing people’s different and unique lived experiences. This belief can stifle real growth needed to create inclusion, preventing good dialogue from taking place since people are worried about saying the wrong thing. This is especially true when it comes to talking about disability. Disability is often seen as “wrong”—we must feel sorry for people with disabilities. This stops conversations from happening because of our fear of isolating and offending. When we instead invite open and honest dialogue, and give permission to fail, we focus on how to respond when mistakes are made. This is how culture change happens.

2. Invite stories.

When we control our own social narrative, we become empowered to take control of our own story. Through programming and events, virtual campaigns, and everyday sound bites from staff and our wider community of grantees, we begin to see people with disabilities as whole beings. We can move away from a place of deficits, and instead see opportunities for growth and understanding. Yet, stories can only be shared when it feels comfortable to do so, when there is no fear of being treated differently or less than – and to do this we must first normalize disability in all its incarnations.

3. Normalize.

Disability is the world’s most common marginalized identity, and one of the most flexible identities. Any one of us could suddenly become disabled. I was born with several chronic health issues that will forever cause me discomfort – but I didn’t identify as disabled until about 15 years ago because I did not think the term applied to me. When I started to lose my hearing eight years ago, although I already felt aligned with a disability identity, I was becoming more disabled by my environment. The world was not set up to accommodate hard of hearing and d/Deaf people. I often challenge people to be uncomfortable when they think of disability, and to work through this discomfort. Since it affects such a large portion of our world, why is it that we find it difficult to normalize?

4. It is about everyone.

While I would love to just wave a magic wand, disability inclusion work cannot be achieved by one team or in a silo. The HR DEI team will be the glue that holds it all together, but in reality, this work has to be embedded in every aspect of our organization. We have begun to collaborate with programs on our grant making side to pilot proactive mental health practices that give staff networks of peer support and creative resource development. Our operational units have established disability inclusion as one of their strategic objectives. We will be working with Global IT to roll out a new set of assistive software to all employees who need it. We are connecting with our Smart Meeting Management & Resource Tools team in Finance to create a network of accessible venue spaces. We are partnering with the Global Security team to build accessible practices into our Hostile Emergency Awareness Training. And we are working with Communications to include inclusive terminology in our Editorial Style Guide.

The road towards disability inclusion is long, and as the ADA turns thirty, we see how limited this law is. It has language that still portrays disabled people as limited beings, in need of charity. If we see this Act as the beginning, we look to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as the future. We can start to envision a world in which flexibility and accessible policies, structures, and design become common practice.

The UN Convention, which was ratified in 2008, is one of the most progressive documents written on disability rights in the world. It shifts us away from charity models and towards a world that views people with disabilities as rights holders with the ability to make informed decisions about their lives. It allows us to normalize disability, and when we do this, we see all the possibilities. It opens up higher productivity and, most importantly, it creates the opportunity for all of us to bring our whole selves to the workplace.

During this time of COVID-19, we must remember that people with disabilities, along with many other marginalized identities, have been disproportionately affected. As organizations contemplate how to return to the office, I encourage us all to think about how different the workplace could look and how much more accessible we can be for people with disabilities. As difficult as this time has been globally, this pandemic offers us a unique opportunity in the creation of inclusive workspaces.

Thank you for being on this #JourneyToInclusion.