Disability in the Workplace: Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities

Erin Waddell standing at the top of a hill with a beach in the background

There are 2.1 million working-age adults with disabilities in Australia today, a huge — and often untapped — pool of talent. The disability community however often struggles to find employment due to bias and a general lack of awareness of how to create a supportive, inclusive environment. Shockingly, 65% say they either some, or all of the time, feel the need to hide their true selves at work.

The disability community is incredibly diverse, encompassing people with a wide variety of diagnoses — including physical disabilities, learning disabilities, blindness, autism, deafness, anxiety and chronic pain. Since many of these are “invisible” conditions, disability is more common than it might appear.

To mark International Day of People with a Disability (IDPwD) which is held on 3 December each year, we sat down with Erin Waddell, Customer Insights Strategist at Indeed and Co-Chair of Indeed’s Accessibility Group, Access Indeed. Erin shared her experiences of living with a physical disability, issues she’s faced in the workplace, and her advice for businesses wanting to create a more inclusive environment for people with a disability.

In a nutshell, what do you do for work?
At Indeed, I help our clients understand and engage with our products. I have been with Indeed Australia for almost four years, and my career has progressed quite rapidly in that time.

How do you define diversity and inclusion (D&I)?

It’s the conscious effort to ensure that no one at a company is considered or treated differently due to any aspect of who they are, that they are made to feel welcome, valued and can participate in all company initiatives.

Can you tell us about your physical disability and how it affects your work?

I was born without my lower left arm, a congenital birth defect, and luckily it hasn’t greatly affected my work. The only accommodation I really need is a keyboard that has flush keys, as I type with one hand and need to ensure my fingers don’t get stuck between the keys when I type.

What challenges have you faced in your career because of your disability?

One of the biggest is the biases that exist in hiring, and the way some colleagues in the past have discredited my merits as a ‘diversity quota’ hire. Bias is something we all have, but for someone with a disability, it can be especially prevalent when we’re applying for a job because recruiters and hiring managers might assume you are not capable of doing things that you are perfectly capable of.

Why is it important to establish a diverse and inclusive workplace?

So employees can feel included and are allowed to be 100% themselves at work. It means they’ll perform better in their roles and are less likely to leave the company than those who are marginalised or excluded.

How does having D&I strategies in place benefit a business?

It allows for sharing of stories, and educating employees to increase understanding and empathy around issues like a disability that their co-workers, and potentially people in their own daily lives, are experiencing.

Why is Indeed a great place to work? What D&I initiatives does Indeed have in place?

Indeed is a great place to work because of the company’s inclusiveness — they encourage you to be who you are when you show up at work. Indeed’s D&I initiative is huge because they understand its importance, and aim to be a leader in the space.

Inclusion Resource groups (IRGs) are available for most underrepresented groups (e.g. LGBTQI+, women, parents and caregivers). Everyone is encouraged to join an IRG at Indeed.

Access Indeed is the IRG that focuses on people with visible and invisible disabilities, and it came about after one of our American employees joined Indeed from a company that had a really active group. She saw that we did not have an inclusion group for people with a disability, and put the feelers out to see if anybody would be interested in leading it. I put my hand up to start the Australian chapter. That was back in 2017 and we’ve grown quite a bit both in members and accomplishments in that time.

What advice can you give to businesses that want to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace?

There are a lot of facts and statistics out there (that the Australian Network on Disability can provide) that show the benefits of disability inclusion in the workplace. My recommendation to businesses of any size is to take the initiative to allow their employees to explore options of starting up an inclusion resource group for people with disabilities.

At some point most of us will be temporarily disabled — whether that’s a sprained ankle, a surgery recovery, or declining hearing, and understanding how this can affect a company can only make them stronger in the end, as they will become better equipped to quickly adapt.

It’s also important that companies give their employees a platform to feel heard — they might not know how they need to improve because a disabled employee has never been given a feedback platform. There could be potential issues with their workstations or websites that only a disabled person might pick up on, and that could mean companies are losing out on business and talent because they are not accessible.

Lastly, giving employees space to openly discuss what they are passionate about makes them feel appreciated and valued which again, leads to less attrition and higher workplace happiness.

This interview was also featured in Indeed’s recent report, Diversity and inclusion in the workplace: Fostering an environment for all employees to thrive.

Want to learn more about starting an IRG at your workplace? Watch Erin’s conversation with Indeed’s CEO Chris Hyams.

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