Bringing Disabilities to Light in the Workplace

Perceiving me as “normal” is the highest compliment anyone can pay me. After all—I am a father, husband, colleague, and friend. I also happen to be one of more than 33,000,000 people aged 16-64 living with a disability. You may not see my disability, but it affects everything I do.

In America, only 30.9% of individuals aged 16-64 living with a disability were employed in 2019 compared to 74.6% of non-disabled individuals. Disabled individuals who are physically unable to work—8.1 million as of 2019—receive Supplemental Security Income. Individuals can receive up to $783 per month while a couple can receive up to $1,175—nowhere close enough to live on. It’s eye opening to see the monetary value placed on a disability when that disability prevents you from being able to work.

Being able to work full time allows me to earn significantly more than this—and instills a personal sense of pride. I continually strive to find ways to independently overcome my disability at work, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need help. The trick is figuring out how to ask for help.

Although I don’t presume to speak for everyone with a disability, I hope that by sharing my experiences I can help others begin their own dialogues about disabilities—and accommodations—in the workplace.

My Story

When I was 3 years old, I suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm, which triggered a stroke across the right side of my body. Hearing this, you probably think this was a tragic event. It was—don’t get me wrong. But the truth is, I have little recollection before brain surgery. For me, I’ve known nothing else besides how my body currently functions.

The severe trauma that occurred across the left side of my brain, directly affected my:

  • Vision
  • Speech/language
  • Planning/ordered sequencing
  • Logic/analytic thought

I’ve always striven to do as much as I can, though. My neurologist once reminded me that just living a normal life is miraculous for me. All the doctor visits, physical and occupational therapy, and Individual Education Plans (IEPs) in school were to help me live a normal life. Indeed, living an ordinary, independent life as a marketing strategist at U.Group is extraordinary given the circumstances.

Through my own IEP and guidance from parents, aides, and teachers throughout school, I grew up understanding not only how to ask for help, but that it’s necessary to explain why, since most people can’t see my disability—let alone how it perpetually impairs my body.

How I Overcome My Disability on the Job

From seating arrangements to small group meetings, there are many ways that I’ve learned to adapt for success on my own—and some that require engaging my employer for support.

Adapting on my own

We all know ourselves best. Over the years I’ve learned to become inherently aware of my own limitations, anticipate roadblocks, and pivot to make the necessary adjustments. While there are many more examples, here are a few ways I have learned to adapt for my disability during the work week:

  • Commuting. I’m an early bird by nature, but this habit is also steeped in necessity. My balance is impaired, and I carry my workbag and backpack because I can’t use my right hand to carry things. Starting and ending my day before the congestion of rush hour makes commuting easier to manage.
  • Speech. I minimize my stutter by typing notes as a prompt for giving updates in meetings. By learning what sounds trigger my stutter, I use synonyms before anyone recognizes any unnatural pauses when I talk.
  • Note taking. I taught myself to type fast with my left hand by typing the alphabet repeatedly until I memorized the keyboard. Even though I can type one-handed without looking at the keyboard, it’s still difficult for my brain to focus on typing what was just said while simultaneously recalling what’s currently being said. It’s information overload for the impaired area of my brain. That being said, I may explore using speech-to-text software in the future to increase efficiency.
  • Analytical thinking. I often work through ideas one-on-one or in smaller group settings ahead of meetings to help me overcome speech and analytical barriers caused by my brain injury. Remembering what I want to say in the right order in a larger setting can overload the traumatized area of my brain. I feel the thought fading away, but I can’t grasp it until I’ve stopped talking and reset my train of thought. The smaller settings allow me to practice what I want to say and helps me create the visual explanations needed for my brain to piece things together. Without the assistance of others, it’s difficult to create the picture because I don’t always grasp enough pieces to create a whole.

Employer-supported adjustments

As empowering as it feels to understand my disability and continually find ways to adapt for my limitations, there’s an underlying sense of embarrassment as well—especially when I do hit a roadblock. Although I’ve grown adept at anticipating hiccups and taking steps to self-accommodate where I can, there’s only so much I can do on my own. My story is not unique in that sense—that’s why it’s so important to have support from employers, both through policies and individual support.

Employers will tell you that nothing about your disability needs to be disclosed. While many choose not to, I’ve learned that proactively sharing this up front helps me succeed at work. Before my first day at U.Group, my manager asked what I needed. Since the peripheral vision in my right eye is greatly affected, they were able to arrange my desk so people will naturally approach me from the left.

In fact, I found out that U.Group has a policy to conclude meetings at :55 minutes on the hour. Once we are able to see each other in person again, this five-minute buffer will give me the chance to find seating in the conference room to ensure that I can see everyone in attendance.

Ways Employers can Create a Disability Inclusive Work Environment

I recognize it isn’t always easy to self-advocate for many reasons. Here are some of the things both you and your employer can do to overcome these challenges and foster an inclusive culture:

Adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outlines what employers need to know about reasonable accommodations. This not only gives people with disabilities equal opportunity when applying to and interviewing for a job, but also provides the framework that helps them perform their job duties while fully enjoying employment benefits.

While it can be relatively simple to create customized work environments that allow people with disabilities to thrive, other ADA aspects get overlooked mainly due to disruptions caused by adhering to universal standards. For example, the ADA provides minimum height and width distances inside buildings to allow an individual to seamlessly operate their wheelchair while at work.

With accessibility minimum distances ranging between 36-60 inches, it’s easy to think of places that aren’t easy-access for wheelchairs. However, if these accommodations were made universally, benefits could go beyond making work environments easier to navigate for people with disabilities. Taking a human-centered design approach to designing workspaces would not only make them easier to navigate, but it could make social distancing an easier reality in a post-COVID-19 world.  

Training, work culture, and other next steps

Having an invisible, neurological disability like I do means that no matter how much I adapt, my disability will always affect how I do my job. This is why it’s crucial for employers to cultivate inclusive work cultures. Accommodating for neurodiversity and other limitations helps people with disabilities succeed and grow. Trainings and toolkits like these are valuable aids for people with disabilities, managers, and peers alike to knock down the barriers we face in the workplace.

As I said above, people with disabilities do not need to disclose anything about their situations. However, without speaking up, everything from hiring and promoting people with disabilities to building a comfortable and sensitive work culture is made more difficult because the conversation isn’t taking place. To the contrary, dialogue opens the door to opportunities for creating inclusive environments benefiting both people with disabilities and everybody else at a company.

Even outside the workplace, invisible disabilities often go unnoticed by society at large. My limp, for example, is often brushed off as a football injury by those who notice it. People assume this based on my 6’2” frame, but are often unaware of how severe my nerve damage is in my foot—and that my disability actually prevented me from playing football. However, if we switched bodies, there’s a chance neither of us would know how to function given our individual limitations. We adapt and move on in life, but we need to speak up and share what we’re going through in order to grow.

I’m comfortable sharing this snapshot of how I live and, in every way, know that my disability has given me a uniquely beneficial perspective. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 25, and there’s no way to fully describe the feeling of independence once I earned it. When you compare those hurdles to struggling through projects at work, life naturally teaches you what’s worth stressing over. This outlook has helped me handle feedback well. While my viewpoint may still be the exception, I hope that bringing disabilities to the forefront at work will become the norm as we continue to develop environments that foster listening and understanding.

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