Creating an Inclusive Workplace

By Amy Reid, World Learning Program Officer

This month is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The national campaign started in 1945 to raise awareness every October about disability employment issues as well as to celebrate the contributions of American workers with disabilities.

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While I applaud this 70-year-old initiative it’s simply not enough. In my view, every month must be disability awareness month. Americans with disabilities make up almost one-fifth of our population, but they are unemployed at a rate that is twice that of people without disabilities. For women and minorities with disabilities, the unemployment rate is even higher.

And consider this: One billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, experience some form of disability with the number of people living with disabilities higher in developing countries. One-fifth of the estimated global total — between 110 million and 190 million people — experience significant disabilities.

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Panelists from a discussion on study abroad inclusion held at World Learning.

At World Learning, all of our programs are designed to promote education, exchanges and development for a more just world — and that means a world that is inclusive of everyone regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or ability. This core value is not only applied to our domestic and international programs; it is also practiced in our offices in Washington, D.C. and Brattleboro, Vermont.

Unfortunately, truly inclusive practices still don’t come naturally to the workplace. it is all too easy to slide into the comfortable trap of hiring people who are familiar, whether you work in a large corporation, start-up or non-profit. That’ why it takes true leadership to create a structure where inclusion is not just a stated value but actually practiced.

Here at World Learning our CEO and President Donald Steinberg ensures inclusion is practiced at every level of our organization. With his support, we formalized a Disability Working Group in 2013, of which I am a member.

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Dr. Asiah Mason (left), Program Officer Amy Reid (center), Inclusion Specialist Jennifer Collins-Foley (right), and former World Learning Intern Neelam Dhadankar (bottom center) (photo courtesy of Dr. Asiah Mason)

Regarding inclusion, Steinberg says, “nothing about us, without us,” which means we cannot meet the goals of the Disability Working Group without having people with disabilities included in the conversation. This has been facilitated by the U.S. International Council on Disabilities’ Youth in International Development and Affairs Program. Through this program, we have worked with excellent interns for the past three summers. In addition, we have had a work-study position for a graduate student from the SIT Graduate Institute’s Sustainable Development Program in Washington, DC, to assist the working group.

These programs have brought people with disabilities into our office, helping demystify what it means to work with someone with a disability, raising awareness and even bridging cultures. Here are a few things I have learned from this important experience:

  • The environment creates the disability, not the person. Imagine walking into a room with no chairs because it is assumed everyone came in with one.
  • The person with the disability is an expert on his or her own disability and needs, so never assume, but ask if someone needs help.
  • Since everyone is different, communication is important. Ask how someone would like to be assisted and what accommodations are needed.
  • Always put the person before the disability. Focus on the what he or she can contribute, not his or her limitations.
  • Talk directly to the person with whom you wish to communicate, not the assistant or interpreter.
  • Technology we all use can be a useful tool for accommodations. For example, Skype chat can be used to facilitate an interview with someone who is deaf.
  • American Sign Language is not English with gestures. It is a language with its own grammar.
  • Anyone can provide a visual interpretation so that a person who is blind or has low vision understands what is happening and who is in the area.
  • When serving as a sighted guide, a helpful tip is to place your hand on the back of a chair so the person can easily find where the chair is located.
  • Inclusive practices can be helpful to everyone; for example, everyone can benefit from the automated door whether our hands are full of coffee or we use a scooter.

I joined the Disability Working Group because two colleagues from a previous job were legally blind. Getting to know someone with a disability as a friend and colleague helped to raise my awareness about these issues. Recent interns at World Learning have had a similar impact on our staff.

Justice Shorter, our work study student who is legally blind, said she was impressed by the integration and overall implementation of inclusionary practices. For example, staff members strive to ensure that materials are provided in advance and are produced in accessible formats. In addition, staff members actively probe for sustainable solutions to problems related to physical spaces and access to information.

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Justice Shorter, SIT Graduate Institute alumna, conducts a workshop on inclusion in the workplace at World Learning.

“These simple practices have allowed me to more fully participate in workshops, meetings and trainings at World Learning,” noted Shorter. It is worth noting that these inclusive practices are not the result of a requirement but come from an understanding and genuine caring about the student as a person regardless of how she accesses information or moves throughout our office.

During the month of October companies and organizations across the country are reconfirming their commitment to inclusive workplaces. At World Learning, the interns and students working with the Disability Working Group have shown our staff how to be an inclusive workplace not only in October but every month of the year. We have more to learn and are continually seeking to increase our capacity so we can adapt, accommodate, advocate and serve as allies for people with disabilities. Thanks to World Learning’s leadership and commitment, I believe we are taking the steps we need to build a staff reflecting the inclusive practices we want to see around the world.

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