By Jessie Calerofundraiser and freelance writer

With the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to unfold, one thing seems to be true throughout the country: We’re in a workforce crisis. While both the cause and the cure seem to be up for debate, the untapped labor force that is universally dismissed is disabled folks. With employment rates among people with disabilities having dropped precipitously low to only 17.9% during 2020, there has never been a more opportune time to address accessibility and inclusive hiring practices within nonprofit organizations. 

If your work environment and culture are inaccessible from the get-go, it is unlikely that disabled folks would feel encouraged to apply for or accept a position within your organization.

Among any employer (for-profit and nonprofit alike), the primary fears related to hiring a person with a disability always come down to cost. Employers assume that increased training processes, workplace accommodations, and unexpected expenses lurk around every corner when hiring a person with a disability. 

What they fail to take into consideration is that everyone, whether disabled or not, has support needs, both in the workplace and at home. Non-disabled people constantly utilize tools and technologies developed by and for disabled folks, such as text messaging, speech-to-text services, automatic doors, Velcro, keyboards — the list goes on. Even video call technology was initially developed to allow Deaf users to communicate directly via sign language in lieu of TTY and interpreting services. 

While many of these technologies are used by everyone today, the idea of accommodating a specific need is often considered inconvenient, unreasonable, expensive, or uncomfortable when it is in response to a disability. 

Yet, among the wealthy and privileged, it has become commonplace to hire tutors, housekeepers, and personal assistants — all of whom provide enhanced support, allowing a person to focus their bandwidth on other priorities (like opening family foundations that don’t accept unsolicited proposals … ). People who can afford these luxuries are never accused of laziness, incompetence, or being a burden on society. 

The thing is, in most employment settings, accommodations can usually be offered at no or minimal cost. In situations where significant changes need to be made to accommodate the needs of a disabled employee (environmental modifications as an example), there are often funding opportunities available to employers through tax incentives and state vocational rehabilitation offices

Most nonprofit organizations, most likely due to being underfunded and overworked, deal with accessibility issues and accommodations from a defensive position. I would encourage these organizations to begin acting offensively, identifying, and mitigating accessibility barriers before an employee with a disability crosses their threshold. 

I mention this for two reasons: If your work environment and culture are inaccessible from the get-go, it is unlikely that disabled folks would feel encouraged to apply for or accept a position within your organization. With the continued impacts of the pandemic, our generation will grapple with disability at increased frequency and greater complexity than ever before, relying on already under-resourced and over-burdened support systems that are wholly unprepared for increased demand. This will only be exacerbated by the support needs of an aging generation of Baby Boomers. Accommodating disabled employees may be on your organization’s backburner, but any non-disabled member of your team can become disabled at any time. 

There are a number of ways to create an inclusive, disability-friendly workplace. 

1. Normalize allowing your employees to communicate their support needs (and then meet them). 

Employers should believe and respect disclosure (when a disabled person shares their disability and/or support needs with another person), especially among those whose disabilities are not visible. Disability looks different for everyone. Making comments like, “But you’re so smart,” or “We’re all a little autistic, aren’t we?” aren’t accurate, helpful, or supportive. Providing validation, acknowledging a person’s experience, and sharing a willingness to learn about a person’s support needs is essential to creating an inclusive workforce. While disabled people like me who are able to ‘pass’ as non-disabled experience a significant amount of privilege, it can be incredibly difficult to navigate life when your support needs are dismissed because you exhibit independence in other areas.

It’s important to recognized that disabled people have been asking to work from home for years — something that — along with remote medical appointments, remote school, and a variety of other accommodations — was considered impossible prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but then became ubiquitous when it was necessary for non-disabled employees to successfully and safely work.

While each disabled person may struggle with different aspects of a typical work environment, one of the most immediate and cost-effective accommodations can be through providing sensory accommodations and setting universally beneficial boundaries in the workplace. 

Most neurotypical folks are able to ‘screen out’ or adapt to sensory input. As an autistic person, I constantly hear the air conditioner running, the fan on the computer tower next to my desk, the traffic outside the building, and the sound that most office light fixtures make. Add in someone’s overpowering perfume, another person’s lunch, and a flickering bulb over my desk — the sensory overload becomes unbearable. And if, in the midst of all that, someone tries to share an update on the latest team project, it can be difficult for me to process anything that they’re saying. Even more so if they expect me to make eye contact. 

Many autistic people struggle to process more than one source of sensory input at a time. For me, making eye contact with a stranger, acquaintance, or colleague can be so uncomfortable that I will struggle to process what they are saying. More often than not, I am able to do my closest listening when staring into space or looking away from someone, but that can feel upsetting or dismissive for neurotypical folks. 

While some of these problems may seem difficult to mitigate, inclusive offices can allow neurodivergent folks (and all team members) to shut their office doors to reduce noise and unexpected interruptions, provide noise-canceling headphones or specialized ear plugs that mute background noise (no endorsement deals on the horizon but there is a brand I absolutely recommend), set boundaries through office hours, embrace a low or no-scent environment, and encourage email communication outside of pre-arranged meetings, something that allows neurodivergent folks to process and respond to new information at their own speed.

Organizations can also provide opportunities for job-sharing, something that can benefit disabled and non-disabled employees. Within the disabled community, physical limitations, chronic pain, or the need to access extensive medical treatment can make working full-time hours impossible, while for others the need to access benefits is contingent on not exceeding a specific income threshold (I’ll save my rant on how government programs require disabled people to live below the poverty level in order to access benefits they need to survive for another time). Within an organization that has one full-time position to fill, certain jobs can be shared by two part-time employees, both of whom might have a disability or other reason why full-time work is not feasible. 

In situations where job seekers are able to be more selective of the environments, wages, and other features of a workplace they are willing to tolerate or would like to actively pursue, employers should be maximizing and marketing the options they provide their employees that add value to positions without having to add dollar signs that tight budgets won’t allow. One effective way of doing this is allowing people to work from home. Not only has this practice proven to increase productivity, cultivate better work-life balance, and reduce the costs and time employees spend commuting — this practice also increases access to work opportunities for disabled job seekers, especially given the wider breadth of applicants an organization can access by removing geographic restrictions (disabled folks often struggle with moving across state lines because benefits vary state-to-state and would have to pass up employment opportunities that require relocation and the potential loss of support). 

It’s important to recognized that disabled people have been asking to work from home for years — something that — along with remote medical appointments, remote school, and a variety of other accommodations — was considered impossible prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but then became ubiquitous when it was necessary for non-disabled employees to successfully and safely work. Employers should make concerted efforts to continue to allow remote and hybrid work options when feasible.

2. Physical accessibility requires more than installing a ramp.

While ramps and elevators provide essential access to wheelchair users and others who benefit from physical accommodations, most organizations’ accessibility measures begin and end at the front door. Nonprofit organizations must expand their definition of accessibility. 

Organizations should be examining whether their restrooms are truly wheelchair accessible. (Get out your measuring tapes, 36-inches is the bare minimum, especially for motorized wheelchairs.) They should also consider providing adult changing tables in their public spaces. Many adults with disabilities require assistance with personal care, and many of them are being forced to access this care on the floor of public restrooms. 

Employers should also be embracing unisex restrooms. While this positively impacts a number of folks (increasing safety for trans and nonbinary folks, reducing long restroom lines, and allowing parents to easily and safely provide support to young children), this practice also increases comfort for disabled people. If an disabled person requires assistance in the restroom, but does not share the same gender identity as their support provider, it can create uncomfortable situations in the restroom if they are segregated as male and female. Also, there are plenty of disabled people who also identify as trans or nonbinary, only further underlining the need to provide accessible restrooms for everyone. 

Physical accessibility needs to be addressed outside of restrooms as well. Nonprofit organizations often don’t consider their distance from public transportation when identifying where they purchase or lease space to provide services. This distance can determine whether a disabled employee or service recipient would have the ability to reach your offices. Additionally, some organizations don’t enforce parking policies, allowing board members or valued donors to use accessible parking as VIP spaces. 

Many physical accommodations can be made by swapping a simple fixture. A typical round door knob requires grasping, which is inaccessible to those who have difficulty grasping (either due to sensory sensitivity or due to fine motor limitations), as well as those who do not have hands. A lever style door knob allows someone to press down without grasping or use an elbow or other part of the body to move the lever and open the door. 

Ideally, organizations would be able to provide automated doors, increasing access for everyone. (However, even organizations that have invested in automated electric doors have been known to turn them off to “save electricity.”) 

Even desk and table heights can present barriers to disabled folks. Providing adjustable-height workstations, as well as information or reception desks that allow a wheelchair user or little person to see the person they are addressing, creates an environment where everyone feels heard and valued.

3. Examine your biases around what jobs disabled people can perform and what your perfect applicant ‘looks like’ on paper (and in person).

There are a variety of lenses through which the world views disability. @PacingPixie illustrates the varying models of disability beautifully. Under the medical model, a person’s diagnosis is the problem. Under the functional model, the individual’s capacity is the problem. Finally, under a social model, the actual barrier is the problem.  

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A post shared by Pixie (@pacingpixie)

In embracing a social model of disability, organizations can re-examine the work they have been taught that disabled people are capable of doing. Just as a wheelchair user is able to easily enter a building when a ramp is available, disabled folks are able to perform a wide variety of tasks and job demands when their support needs are met. 

Disabled folks are often relegated to entry-level service, retail, and production occupations, not because those are the only jobs at which they are competent, but because society has decided those are the only jobs disabled folks are deserving of. When evaluating the strengths disabled folks offer in the workplace, there is often a focus on quantity over quality. This is rarely touched on when employers screen non-disabled applicants. How many of us have been asked, “How quickly can you stuff an envelope for a direct mail appeal?” when we interview for a new fundraising position? However, a preoccupation with an employee’s speed, rather than job performance is often used to justify sheltered workshops and sub-minimum wage compensation for people with disabilities. 

Organizations should also be examining whether they account for lived experience when screening applicants. Focusing on post-secondary education (or even high school graduation) and work history above all else often screens out eager and experienced disabled job seekers. Eliminating minimum education requirements and other fairly subjective hiring criteria also positively impacts those who did not have the opportunity to graduate high school, pursue higher education, or access other experiences seen as valuable in the workplace but are rooted in privilege (unpaid internships, extensive travel, and significant volunteer history or board service). 

Job applications (especially those that are digitally automated to screen out applicants based on multiple choice responses) can also be a means of discouraging disabled applicants from reaching the interview stage. Many jobs specify the need for a driver’s license or specific lifting requirements for positions that don’t require lifting or driving. 

4. Deconstruct a culture of “professionalism” that is rooted in racism and ableism. 

Ableism and racism are deeply connected. Both determine who is valuable to society based on criteria that fall outside an individual’s control (including appearance, language, social conformity, and productivity). Within work environments, an ableist culture is also often racist as well. 

Ableism and racism thrive in work environments where, above all else, we are expected to ‘behave professionally.’ There are inherent dangers in allowing the workplace to be ruled by ‘professionalism.’ In these spaces, Black and Indigenous hair is policed and labeled distracting. ‘Professional’ work attire and the philosophy that we should all ‘dress for the job we want’ centers those that are already in positions of wealth and who can therefore afford to do so as well as those for whom professional clothing is made for and readily available (something that is not often the case for fat and/or disabled folks). In these environments, facial expressions and body language are monitored closely and used to communicate messages neurodivergent colleagues never receive. Direct, honest, and clear communication is dismissed in favor of hint-dropping, passive aggression, and lying to preserve inauthentic relationships (especially with donors). 

I encourage us all to consider whether it is more important to create a work environment rooted in professionalism, or if it might be more valuable to build a culture of respect

I challenge you to build a more committed, engaged, and diverse workforce that reflects the community in which you live.

As our society continues to grapple with the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our public health systems, economy, and communities, we know that no one organization can solve all these problems or fully mitigate the impacts of COVID-19. 

However, we need to acknowledge that there is not a shortage of well-equipped, enthusiastic, and motivated workers in our country. There is a shortage of employers that prioritize inclusivity, equitable pay, and accessibility. 

As organizations navigate the ripple effects of being under-resourced and having been held hostage by the misconception that nonprofit employees should be paid less or should do without necessary resources, I challenge you to offensively tackle issues of equitable reimbursement and access. I challenge you to tap into an existing workforce that wants to contribute to their community and their local economy. I challenge you to build a more committed, engaged, and diverse workforce that reflects the community in which you live. 

Jessie Calero

Jessie Calero

Jessie Calero (she/her/hers) is a life-long resident of New Mexico who earned her Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees from the University of New Mexico. With over 10 years of experience in nonprofit leadership and fundraising, Jessie serves as director of development within a disability organization based in the South Valley of Albuquerque. She enjoys freelance writing and fussing with houseplants in her spare time. As an Autistic woman, Jessie provides training focused on ableism and its impacts to nonprofit organizations and community businesses that want to prioritize accessibility, inclusivity, and universal design. She can be reached via email or on LinkedIn.