Embracing disability inclusivity beyond the pandemic
An interview with Dr. Feranmi Okanlami
Many of the workplace accommodations made during the pandemic — such as hybrid work arrangements and flexibility — are the same accommodations that workers with disabilities have been asking for for years. Guardian’s research found that while well-being went down for most US workers, workers with disabilities showed increased well-being during the pandemic, in part influenced by the advancements in flexibility, remote work accommodations, and enhanced leave offerings.1
Now, as businesses reconsider their operating models, employers have an opportunity to embrace inclusivity in the workplace through benefits and practices that support the well-being of all workers. Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, MD, MS, is a physician dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as a speaker and advocate for people with disabilities. Dr. Okanlami shared his suggestions for best practices around disability inclusion and ways that workplaces can support workers with disabilities moving forward.
Q: Guardian’s research found that well-being among workers with disabilities improved during the pandemic. What workplace practices do you think contributed to this improvement?
Dr. Feranmi Okanlami: Prior to the pandemic, there were workplace dynamics that were not as inclusive or accessible to individuals with disabilities. During the pandemic, we quickly pivoted to a different model of work that was, by design, more accessible. People had to change at the drop of a hat — you had people coming in and out of the workplace with COVID-19, you had families that had to manage kids in and out of school. And we were doing things in a more accessible way: we had more remote work, we had more virtual work, we had more telepresence.
So, I think that this was a dynamic of individuals with disabilities, who are a minority population, who received something that helped make the workplace more accessible. This was not provided before, and now is provided for the majority. The individuals who would have benefited from this long before are now seeing these benefits improving their well-being — not because of the pandemic, but because the pandemic led to advancements in things that would have benefited them even prior to the pandemic.
One example is remote work. For individuals with physical disabilities, getting to and from work may have been physically demanding. And now, if you don’t have to take two trains, a bus, a plane, a taxicab, all of which are inaccessible and remind you of the inaccessibility of the world every single day, you don’t have those constant reminders of how you are not valued in the spaces in which you occupy. You are in your own physical space that is accessible to you and set up how you need it to get your work done.
Q: Many companies are rethinking their working arrangements during this phase of the pandemic. How can the lens of inclusivity inform employers during this time?
Dr. Feranmi Okanlami: Over the past two years some companies lost revenue, staff, or employees. But I think many people learned that the rigid ways that they did things in the past do not have to be the ways they do them in the future.
The pandemic showed us that we could do things differently that we may not have ever tried to do differently, because it is hard to move large organizations and institutions. But when something like a global pandemic hits and forces you to change, you don’t necessarily want to swing the pendulum right back to the same place. You want to then see, what have we learned during this time? What opportunities have come from this unfortunate situation that we were in? What can we do to move forward to make sure that we have learned from that?
Q: In your recent Guardian webinar, you talk about how adaptive sports are designed so everyone can play together — not just for those with disabilities. Are there any parallels when it comes to workplace adaptations?
Dr. Feranmi Okanlami: In the workplace, there may be a solution that you learned of through a disability community, but then you’ll see that the disability community is not the only one that benefits from this, and that we all should be able to embrace this change. This demonstrates why it’s important to have people with disabilities in our midst, who are able to give us this new perspective, and it can lead to benefits that impact more of us than just those with disabilities.
Individuals with disabilities within your organization are an asset because they will probably have a way of thinking about things, living life, and a perspective that will benefit more people in your organization than just that community. And if you restrict that thinking to just that individual community, you’ll be more small-minded in terms of what you can do and how you allocate your resources. It is actually because the disability community is so diverse that when you ask about the needs of the disability community, you’re getting a more representative sample about the needs of your entire community.
Q: Our research shows a perception gap between employees and employers when it comes to how well organizations support workers with disabilities. Why do you think this is and what can employers do about it?
Dr. Feranmi Okanlami: This is about culture and climate. If the culture and climate of your organization is one in which people can see that you are open and welcoming and making sure that this is a workplace that is as accessible as it can be, then they will feel valued. They will feel that they can come and disclose their disability and request their accommodations. But when the culture of the organization is that you have to come to work even when you’re sick, if you cannot do this work then you cannot be on this team, why would someone say that they may need accommodations in some way to accomplish their work?
A culture and climate from leadership needs to be demonstrated in order to get people to feel comfortable disclosing and then requesting appropriate accommodations, that the employers can make good on.
Q: Many employers have policies that address justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI), but they may not explicitly or specifically address workers with disabilities’ needs. How can these two initiatives inform or support each other?
Dr. Feranmi Okanlami: Disability is an aspect of diversity. Period. And so therefore, if you’re talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and there is any demographic group that is excluded from that, then it’s not a diversity, equity, or inclusion initiative. Diversity, equity, and inclusion does not mean minority inclusion. Diversity, equity, and inclusion also needs to involve the majority. So, if you don’t have any programs in place to also make sure that everyone in your organization feels valued then you’re not truly doing diversity and inclusion work.
So yes, disability is an aspect of diversity, it should be included in these initiatives. They can work synergistically to make sure that all the identity groups and all individuals feel included in the work that you’re doing. And, by doing so and not making it about silos and identities, you’ll be able to create a workplace culture that includes everyone.
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