How To Have A Meaningful Conversation About Disability At Work

Aug 22, 2018

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Nicole, who co-owns a salon

Nicole, who co-owns a salon in Newton, Massachusetts, says her learning disability is a strength that sets her apart. 

August 22, 2018 | Denise Brodey, Contributor

If you have a disability, you very quickly come to understand that it is an issue most people don’t open up about at work. Sure, talking about your experience with chronic fatigue syndrome, depression or a learning disability such as dyslexia might happen behind closed doors. But in a larger setting? It’s still taboo. To say the silence millions keep each day is stifling is an understatement. Many people describe it as feeling like their true self has been hijacked and replaced, at least during working hours. Hiding a disability does colleagues a disservice, too. Truth is, every time someone speaks up for people with disabilities in the workplace, particularly if they have lived experience, it has the potential to build trust, empathy, and engagement.

Advocates, role models, mentors—whatever the label, I know one thing for sure: the workplace needs many, many more to share their strengths. Unfortunately, only 3.2 percent of employees “self-identify” to their employer if they have an invisible disability, according to a National Organization on Disability study. As for people with visible disabilities advocating in the workplace? Well, you may not see as many as you should because, literally, they aren’t there. In 2017, 18.7 percent of persons with a disability were employed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 65.7 percent.

Keep reading to get an idea of how organizations can start a real conversation not just about people with disabilities—but with them—in the workplace:

 — Consider The Value Of Peer Specialists.

Rob Walker, who runs the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health Office of Recovery and Empowerment, says programs that use peer specialists in addition to trained counselors and medical care, have been very successful. He’s hopeful that “younger adults, who seem to be much more accepting of their learning and mental health challenges” and have been offered curriculum on topics of mental health will help end workplace discrimination against people with disabilities. “It’s harder for older adults to admit they need help and you can see a generational divide on this issue,” says Walker. People who are open about their disabilities often become champions of workplace programs. Walker, for instance, talks openly about his diagnosis of bipolar disorder many years ago and says he shares his story often as part of his programming.

— Rethink Your Wellness Program To Make It More Visible Internally.

Some large organizations have been retooling the old ways of assisting employees with mental health issues and creating programs that go beyond telephone consultations or outside referrals for medical issues of concern in the workplace. American Express’s Healthy Minds program is one. “We have been doing this program for a long time. And from the beginning we knew it was key to reach out and educate management about the importance of our mental health programs, says Charles Lattarulo, Ph.D., director of Healthy Minds at American Express. “Through our discussions with senior leaders, they have come to understand how crucial it is that they lead the way in creating a safe, healthy space for our colleagues.” American Express offers on-site face-to-face counseling in addition to traditional services, such as telephone-based employee assistance programs. But it is the internal communication element of the program—asking key players inside the company to recognize and promote the value of destigmatizing mental health issues—that Lattarulo says is crucial. You can find case studies on workplace mental health programs, including the one at American Express, here. 

–Empower Colleagues To Help Each Other.

One way to build trust and open up a conversation is to offer courses such as Mental Health First Aid. The course is an eight-hour immersion in helping someone who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge. Having taken the course, I can say, it’s a long day. But it is time very well spent. I now have it drilled into my mind how to get help for a colleague or friend who appears to be in crisis. A side benefit of taking the course? You’re walking the walk. By setting aside a day to learn about Mental Health First Aid you are showing others this is an issue that really matters to you. Getting the facts straight and sharing them is also empowering. You can learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act here.

Sharing personal experiences, however, seem to make the most impact. Author Mandy Froehlich’s The Fire Within captures the stories of educators who have gone through trauma and taken strength from what they have learned. She says, “Organizations create a huge disconnect when they say they talk about the value of wellness but don’t show they truly value it.” In education, she told me, the newest thing is to suggest that teachers practice mindfulness.

“That’s just scratching the surface for social-emotional health for teachers who have experienced trauma,” says Froehlich, who is also the director of innovation and technology for a school district in Wisconsin. “We are often afraid of the ramifications of what we tell their colleagues. That’s not how it should be.”

— Talk Often About Your Strengths.

Audrey Bentley, a student at Michigan State University says, “People really do want to give you help if you ask for it.” Her story is one of four documented in Normal Isn’t Real, a short film that shares the experiences of successful people with learning and attention issues. Nicole Vaiani, a master colorist who owns her own salon in Massachusetts, says: “I learn differently. I learn by seeing and doing and it turns out I am better at my job than a lot of other people.” Her differences are her strength and when she talks about it, she isn’t bragging. She’s starting a crucial conversation about her ability, not her disability, which is the key to becoming an effective role model, advocate or mentor. Even if your colleagues don’t recognize it now, the evidence is clear, say economists, that a diverse workforce performs better.

Denise Brodey is a writer on mental health and disability. She is the author of The Elephant in the Playroom. 

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