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  • Rabasca Roepe

How Managers Can Move Employees with Disabilities into Leadership

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe

October 12, 2021

A recent study found that employees with disabilities often believe they don't have the same opportunities for advancement within their company as do employees without disabilities.

Overall, employees with disabilities are less confident their skills will be used effectively or that their employer will trust them to use their own judgment when performing their job, according to a recent study on The State of Disability Employment Engagement by Mercer and Global Disability Inclusion.

It often depends on a manager whether an employee with a disability gets the same leadership development opportunities as any other employee. "Leaders … need to look for ways to give people with disabilities opportunities to be visible in front of a group," said PwC Tax Director Rob Rusch. "If we live in world where an individual in a wheelchair is visible, then it starts to break down that perception" that someone in a wheelchair may not be capable of performing a certain job.

Here are three ways managers can provide leadership opportunities for employees with disabilities.

Encourage Self-Identification

More companies are encouraging employees to self-identify that they have a disability, particularly if an employee has an invisible disability. People who disclose their disability are more engaged with the organization, their managers and their teams than those who have not disclosed, according to The State of Disability Employment Engagement.

"I'm very comfortable identifying my disability, but I don't have much choice because it's an external physical disability," said Rusch, who has a neuromuscular disability and uses a power wheelchair. Although Rusch understands that an employee with an invisible disability might not be as eager to disclose because of concerns about how a manager or co-worker could react, he doesn't regret being open about his disability. "It has opened resources and doors for me to lean into that identity," he said.

Of the 45,078 PwC employees in 2020, 2.6 percent self-identified as having a disability, up from 1.6 percent of its 43,713 employees in 2018, according to the 2020 PwC Diversity & Inclusion Transparency Report. However, Senior Associate Nesa Mangal said, because PwC is relying on self-identification, the number of employees with disabilities is likely higher.

At tech company Intel, 1.4 percent of the 110,600 employees self-identified as having a disability in 2020, said Dawn Jones, chief diversity and inclusion officer and vice president of social impact. Intel's goal is to increase the percentage of employees who self-identify as having a disability to 10 percent of the workforce by 2030, Jones noted. "This is an important goal for us as we work toward an inclusive and psychologically safe environment where employees are empowered to bring their whole self to work and succeed," she said.

Address Inaccurate Perceptions

"Because of first impressions, people with disabilities probably don't always get the benefit of doubt that [other people] get, especially if their disability is visible," said Paula Jenkins, a project manager and executive chef at The Galley Dining Hall in Charleston, S.C. Jenkins manages 120 employees, and about 92 percent have a disability. The Galley contracts with Palmetto Goodwill in North Charleston for employment services and makes it a priority to hire individuals who have a disability.

To help her staffers overcome assumptions about their colleagues' abilities, Jenkins will pair two employees to complete a task—not so one can "teach" the other, but so each can see what the other is capable of doing. "The parts of the job are intertwined," Jenkins said. "You do your part; they do their part." This typically demonstrates to staff that each team member has the skills and talent required to do the job, she said.

Jenkins learned this lesson years ago when she was paired with a colleague who had one arm. Their job was to move 40-pound boxes from one office to another. "At first I wondered, 'Why did they partner me with someone with one arm?' " she admitted. Her co-worker sensed Jenkins' hesitation and told her how he needed her to help—by making sure the boxes were lined up after they were moved and returning the cart to him so he could pull the boxes to the other office. "After that, there were no more questions about whether this individual was qualified to do the job," she said.

Cultivate Support with Candid Conversations

Remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations so that qualified people with disabilities can perform essential job functions, unless an accommodation is unreasonable or would create an undue hardship. It's incumbent on a manager to explore different options that might make even a seemingly difficult accommodation possible. If, for example, an accommodation seems to pose a financial hardship, the employer could look to outside agencies for potential funding as well as investigate certain tax credits that might assist in fulfilling an employee's request. Employers also are encouraged to be creative and determine if a different accommodation would meet the employee's needs.

As for conversations about career expectations, they should sound the same whether a manager is speaking with an employee who has a disability or any other worker, Rusch said. Those discussions should cover the same basic questions: What do you want to accomplish in the next five years? What types of opportunities are you looking for? What skills do you need for promotion, and what training do you need to build those skills?

However, managers are likely to discuss what accommodations an employee with a disability needs to do a job, so it's essential that managers know what resources their company offers, Rusch said.

Jenkins spends time coaching her workers with disabilities on how to help their colleagues understand them better, especially if they have a hidden disability like autism. "I tell them most people aren't exposed to your disability," she said, and may need help understanding it. For instance, someone with autism, who finds it difficult to look someone in the eye when speaking, could tell their colleague, "I have autism, and it causes me to not look directly at you, but I'm paying attention to you and I will respond." Similarly, an employee who takes a while to process information could say, "I have autism, and that can delay my reaction, so it might take me a little bit longer to reply to your question."

However, managers should never call out a person's disability in a group meeting and then ask that person to talk about it. "By doing that, you are creating an environment that highlights how that person is different, and you're telling the team they should interact with that person differently," Rusch said.

Don't Make Assumptions

Managers shouldn't make assumptions about the long-term goals or career aspirations of ­­­an employee with a disability, or about what that person is capable of doing, Rusch said. For instance, a manager might decide not to put someone with a disability on a project that requires travel, because the manager assumes travel would be too difficult for that employee. Making that assumption could potentially hold the employee back from promotion, Rusch said. "Make sure you understand what the employee wants."

One way to determine if an employee with a disability has any limitations is to ask everyone on the team to share what type of flexibility they will need while working on a specific project, Rusch suggested. "Flexibility is something everyone needs, not just people with disabilities."

Employees with disabilities are frequently pigeonholed into a specific role because that's the task they do well and they might do it better than other people on the team. But these employees may want to learn a new skill or expand their role, Jenkins said. If employees show interest in trying a new role, Jenkins encourages them to test it out to see if they feel comfortable doing it. Maybe it's something they test out for a week, or maybe they do that task one day a week for six weeks. "The goal is to build their self-confidence and help them try something new," she said.

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