Let’s Talk: Promoting Disability Inclusion in Today’s Multi-Generational Workplace
Intersectionality is important in today’s society as “people do not just have one facet of their identity,” said Leila Peterson of SchoolTalk in a Jan. 19 webinar sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center.
The webinar explored the intersection between millennials and individuals with disabilities. Specifically, presenters described the methods and results of conducting intergenerational dialogues in the workplace, with a direct focus on a dialogue series conducted by SchoolTalk, DCASE, Ivymount, and TransCen, Inc., and hosted by employers in the D.C. Office of Human Rights, D.C. Office of Disability Rights, American College of Cardiology and the Smithsonian Nation Museum of American History. The series brought together 104 people to discuss workplace diversity, technology and other employer challenges.
The Mid-Atlantic ADA Center is a project of TransCen, Inc.
Why Focus on Millennials with Disabilities?
By 2020, 46 percent of U.S. workers will be millennials. Additionally, one-fifth of the U.S. population has a disability. This is a large segment of the workforce, and yet millennials with disabilities face many obstacles in the workplace.
One problem is the stigma associated with disabilities. According to Melina Mora of SchoolTalk, such stigmas include feelings that individuals with disabilities are both inferior and ignorant, or that they should be pitied. Hero worship, fear of offending, generalizations about physical and mental disabilities and backlash based on the perception that people with disabilities receive unfair advantages are other common attitudinal barriers.
Millennials (whether they’re disabled or not) encounter other hurdles. For example, there are negative stereotypes about young people entering the workforce—that millennials are lazy, unproductive, self-obsessed, get distracted easily, overly rely on technology and don’t engage in collaboration.
Employees that are young and disabled face obstacles from both sides.
Both millennials and disabled individuals may desire to work from home, as opposed to working in an office. But the ability to work remotely and still be productive is overlooked and often frowned upon by those who are more accustomed to working in an office setting.
The speaker from DCASE reflected that, according to many baby boomers, work and office are synonymous—you do your work at the office. However, millennials understand that productive, collaborative work can occur in a variety of settings, thanks to technology.
Additionally, employees who work from home as an accommodation for a disability may encounter the same negative attitude toward telecommuting arrangements.
As a result, the negative outlook is compounded for millennials who have disabilities.
Technology—Tool or Trouble?
Other participants commented on millennials’ reliance on technology. A millennial noted that baby boomers judge millennials for their reliance on technology. According to a baby boomer, the older generation thinks the constant use of technology depersonalizes the office and decreases collaboration.
What employers and those from the older generation may not appreciate is millennials’ ability to utilize technology and to participate, listen and collaborate—and, in some ways, do those things more effectively—without the constraints of location.
Such critical views about the use of technology also apply to employees with physical or mental impairments who utilize technology for assistance in performing job duties.
How to Overcome Obstacles
Engaging in an intergenerational dialogue in the workplace is important because it gives young people entering the workforce and employees with disabilities an opportunity to be heard by coworkers and management, according to Stephanie Leland of the American College of Cardiology. Dialogue promotes understanding and integrates multiple perspectives.
Employers should refrain from debates and combative conversations focused solely on winning, according to SchoolTalk’s Peterson.
While diversity can improve creativity, performance and decision-making in the workplace, it can just as easily undermine performance, unity and communication if individuals aren’t given the opportunity to uncover and examine assumptions and challenge preconceived notions about millennials and individuals with disabilities.
Furthermore, conversation can bring people together and help businesses and organizations better understand how to recruit and retain a diverse workforce by addressing workers’ concerns, as well as the stereotypes and stigmas employees and employers may have.
Both employee and employer participants in the dialogue series continually praised the results of the dialogue and urged all employers to engage workers in conversation to enhance the workplace culture for millennials and individuals with disabilities, and, by so doing, improve the company as a whole.