Supporting Colleagues with Disabilities

January 24, 2024Stephanie Gertz

Each February, we observe Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month. This is an important time to reflect on the ways we create communities of belonging for people with disabilities in our workplaces, as well as the value that our colleagues with disabilities bring to the workplace.

Up to 25% of people live with a disability, which means many of your colleagues have visible or invisible disabilities. While I can't speak for all employees with disabilities, most of us just want to be treated honestly. Ignoring my disabilities won't make them go away, but treating them as my sole defining trait is hurtful. One of my favorite moments in the Barbie movie was a shot of a doctor Barbie who happened to be in a wheelchair with no other commentary!

I have a very visible disability - though you wouldn't be able to tell on a Zoom screen! My right leg doesn't work very well and my right hand is usually clenched in a fist. I have primary progressive multiple sclerosis (PPMS). On one hand, I want to be treated like everyone else... but on the other hand I also want to be fully seen and my disability is integral to who I am. In a former job, an elementary school principal assigned me to be a one-on-one aide for a student who was known to run off. Clearly, that situation set both me and the student up for failure. In the end, the lead teacher intervened and I was assigned to a student who walked at the same speed as I walk. The assignment was a win for me and the student because it acknowledged and accommodated my disabilities and paired him with an adult who was never impatient with his slower-than-average pace.

As an employee, I appreciate and am more empathetic to my colleagues now than before I became handicapped. Just as my disability is not visible on a Zoom square, I'm keenly aware that I can't see everything going on with my colleagues. At my current job for the URJ, I am fortunate to work where I am seen as an individual with strengths and weaknesses, some of which can be attributed to my MS. For example, I bring a heightened sensitivity to accessibility issues when planning events, but stuffing welcome bags may require more fine motor skills than I have! With support from the organization's senior leadership, I've started an affinity group for staff with disabilities, which has helped me amplify the voices of my coworkers who live with both visible and invisible disabilities. Our group's latest project is developing a list of resources and tips that we can share with the entire staff.

During my second week of working at the URJ, a colleague mentioned that she was eliminating a fun activity in a children's program because someone complained it wasn't inclusive. Before I could unmute, two higher-ranking colleagues jumped in with suggestions for reworking the activity so that it could be inclusive rather than scrapped. The message I heard was that my organization cares. Let this be the message you communicate!

According to a 2021 Forbes article, "Seven Reasons Why Hiring People With Disabilities is Good for Business," hiring folks with disabilities can have significant benefits for employers, too. Here are four reasons that especially resonate with me:

  1. Reduced employee turnover. Folks with disabilities are loyal! When we find a place where we're accepted, we stay.
  2. Increased company morale. When folks see that their company hires folks with disabilities, they think more highly of their workplace. They tend to view their companies even more favorably when there are clear paths for folks with disabilities to advance their careers.
  3. The disabled community is a minority anyone can join at any time.
  4. To reach folks with disabilities, make sure we're represented on your staff. We're more likely to engage with companies who recognize that we can make valuable contributions to the workplace.

Making the workplace more inclusive of folks with disabilities makes it more accessible for all. I'm helping my own workplace be a space of belonging for everyone. Won't you join me?

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