Disabled professionals are far rarer than we should be. Access barriers, institutional discrimination, and social misconceptions can all push disabled workers out of employment opportunities they’d likely otherwise be offered. For those who are hired, these same hurdles continue to exist in a way that prevents us from experiencing full inclusion in our workplaces.
Having the support of a coworker, whether it’s to edit emails or strategize for promotions, can be a lifeline within the ever-changing landscape of the workplace. And given what disabled people go through to even show up, this person can be paramount to our success.
I’m fortunate to have not just one, but three confidants at work. Stephanie, Hannah, and Amy invite me to happy hours at hotel bars and answer at least one slightly frantic text per day. But more than that, they are truly invested in advocating for the disabled community and centering my expertise on the subject. A few months ago, Stephanie arranged for me to present an “introduction to ableism” course for our entire staff. Hannah recently proofread a course I’m sharing at a speech-language pathology conference later this summer. And just last week, Amy helped me decide which new pair of sneakers would be the best fit for tearing it up on my new spin bike.
They make me feel seen and understood as their friend, while underscoring the bigger-picture value I have within the workplace we share. Disabled people should not bear the burden of responsibility for ensuring that work environments are inclusive and accessible. We need allies to assist in making jobs open to and welcoming toward the millions of disabled people who want them. Stephanie, Hannah, and Amy don’t have to be exceptions—even though I think they’re exceptional—because being a trusted colleague to a disabled coworker is something anyone can do. Here are five ways to succeed.
1. Advocate for continued workplace flexibility.
Disabled people have asked for workplace accommodations for years to no avail. But when the pandemic made remote and flexible work a necessity for non-disabled workers, changes were quickly implemented. Now that offices are reopening or planning to reopen, use your privilege to advocate for remote and flexible hours as a fixed benefit. This allows disabled people to start or support families, return to school, or plan necessary medical appointments in a way that’s less compromising and more accessible. Furthermore, it’s much easier to manage some aspects of a disability, like fatigue or chronic pain, from home. If you think flexible and remote work also benefits non-disabled people, you’re correct—and that should make it even more appealing to your employer.
2. Ensure digital accessibility.
Most people have realized, either long before or during the pandemic, that in-person meetings aren’t always as productive as they aim to be. As digital connections replace many of them, it’s vital that they’re as accessible as possible. While there are many ways to be digitally inclusive, close-captioned Zoom meetings for those who are Deaf or hearing impaired, alt-text and image descriptions for coworkers who are blind or visually impaired, or emailed summaries of a project’s progress and next steps are often the most crucially important. Digital accessibility means increased access and better communication all around, making it likely that everyone can feel more empowered to collaborate.
3. Do away with assumptions.
There’s a decent chance that your workplace culture negatively assumes what a disabled person can and cannot achieve. Disabled people are just as capable of producing quality work as non-disabled people, and we should be trusted to do so. Doing away with assumptions calls for a fundamental unlearning of discriminatory biases that are held against disabled people. Confronting these biases only happens through exposure to authentic disability representation. If a desk job doesn’t require lifting weight, then it shouldn’t be on that job’s description. If a driver’s license is not essential to a role, then it shouldn’t be a barrier to employment. If it’s not necessary to present in meetings, then those who don’t feel comfortable doing so shouldn’t be penalized. The less judgmental an office is, the more everyone can feel at ease to be themselves.
4. Listen to the specific needs of your colleague.
Disabled people are diverse, intersecting every other identity. Our access needs are as individual as we are. In time, you will likely build a rapport with your disabled colleague that allows you to be more attuned to their specific access needs. A physically-disabled coworker might appreciate your help in carrying their laptop to a meeting. Perhaps a coworker with autism might enlist your help in limiting unnecessary auditory or visual stimuli. As you build a relationship, keep in mind that your help deserves nothing more than a simple “thank you.” Access is the bare minimum, and doing your part to ensure it doesn’t call for excessive praise.
5. Educate yourself.
You can easily get an education on ableism in the media, and surrounding yourself with accurate disability representation should be your priority until it becomes your routine. As you immerse yourself in reading, watching, and listening to this dynamic community, give yourself permission to unlearn what you thought you knew about disabled people. Allow our voices to remain at the forefront, centering our wisdom over your own experiences. Watch the Oscar-nominated film Crip Camp, read Judith Heumann’s memoir Being Heumann, and follow disabled activists and advocates on social media. Soon you’ll have plenty of resources to share with other non-disabled colleagues and the chance at richer conversations about disability with disabled peers. When more people truly understand allyship and act on it, workplaces become more inclusive and it’s easier to, well, get to work.