When thinking about the types of diversity in the workplace, disabilities are often not usually top of mind. However, one in four adults in the United States has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many people serve as caregivers for people with disabilities. For a topic that has such a broad impact on our field, within our workforce, and in our communities, it is significantly understudied and under-researched.
In 2021, the Institute for Public Relations (IPR), in partnership with The Wakeman Agency, conducted a study on the language of diversity in the communications field. The study found that only 24% of communication professionals surveyed said “physical abilities and disabilities” was a high priority for DEI initiatives within the organization. Similarly, neurodiversity (i.e., ADHD, autism spectrum) was only noted by 14% as a high priority.
In early June 2023, IPR, in partnership with 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 2023 who work in organizations with 15 or more people.
When I speak about the study’s findings, I hear stories of how colleagues have been affected personally either by a disability, both temporary or permanent or as a caregiver. And the stories are not always positive. As our industry increasingly focuses on the importance of DEI, we need to make sure we focus on each of those letters in the acronym. In addition to diverse representation, we also have to focus on equity to ensure everyone has access to targeted tools for their success, and inclusion, which affects satisfaction, productivity and retention.
Our results were surprising and indicate much-needed areas of improvement. More than half of employees with disabilities in our study have witnessed or experienced both macro- and microaggressions toward individuals with disabilities at least a few times a year in the workplace.
Additionally, at least 4-in-10 respondents with disabilities had to scale back their hours (41%) or leave their job (49%) due to their disability, affecting retention. Similarly, nearly 5-in-10 caregivers (48%) had to scale back their hours and 34% had to leave their job.
Open-ended responses as to why people did not disclose their disability to their employer were primarily negative. Some of the reasons noted were they believed their hours would be reduced, they were afraid of being stigmatized, or they thought they would be fired.
As most organizations in our industry are trying to find ways to create a stronger culture of belonging, we must support our colleagues with disabilities and caregivers. Ensuring success for people with disabilities helps retention, morale, and improves diversity. Inclusion and disability etiquette training should be required for all employees and managers.
Based on the research findings, public relations professionals can:
- Feature people with disabilities in their internal and external communication, including advertising campaigns and on social media.
- Ensure employees with and without disabilities understand their organization’s strategic plan for people with disabilities and how the organization supports them (including hiring, programs, etc.).
- Educate employees about how to best support their colleagues with disabilities, which can include hosting programs about disability etiquette.
- Encourage executives to be open and talk about their own disabilities and caregiving responsibilities to help create a culture of acceptance.
- Address incidences of macroaggressions and microaggressions against people with disabilities as some individuals are afraid to disclose their disability due to retaliation, perceived stigma, and embarrassment.
- Consider how return-to-office affects employees with disabilities and/or caregivers, which can affect recruitment and retention.
Our study partner Voya Financial visibly champions, hires and supports employees and consumers with disabilities. Voya Financial SVP of Brand and Communications and CCO Paul Gennaro serves on the board of Disability:IN as its vice chair and mentors students with disabilities in the workplace.
Gennaro said that being inclusive of people with disabilities in the same way that companies do for other marginalized communities (which includes members of the disability community) helps drive positive social change. As more organizations are prioritizing retention, it is critically important to support employees with disabilities and caregivers to foster a culture of inclusion for all marginalized communities.
Tina McCorkindale, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Institute for Public Relations (IPR).