Diffability: The Potential of Undervalued Workers in Times of Talent Scarcity

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This piece is authored by Caroline Styr, Head of Thought Leadership Research at The Adecco Group What if I told you a group of workers existed, that were not only motivated, but also have strong performance and are less likely to quit than other workers. You’d think, sure, but they’re employed already, right? Wrong! What if I told you they were unemployed and hungry for work? 71% of CEOs are concerned about the impact of labour shortages on their business strategy while the same percentage of workers are satisfied with their sense of job security. It’s clear that organisations are operating in a candidate-driven market. In this environment, it would be remiss of any business leader to overlook a capable pool of potential employees out of fear or ignorance of their label : disabled. In this article, we’ll address common misconceptions of hiring workers with disabilities, the stigma surrounding them and showcase the power of different abilities. The message is simple: hire and support disabled workers, not because you think you “should,” but because it’s good for business.
Why are employers reluctant to hire disabled workers, if they are capable of completing the activities and tasks required of the job role? One obvious answer: money. There is a strong assumption that the accommodations required by disabled workers require investment on behalf of the employer, think wheelchair ramps or specialist technical equipment. In reality, research shows that the majority of accommodations (56%) cost absolutely nothing. The average cost of remaining accommodations is around $500. In fact, not hiring disabled people could be a financial risk. Research from Accenture, in collaboration with Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), revealed how companies that embrace best practices for employing and supporting people with disabilities are, on average, twice as likely to have higher total shareholder returns.
Source: Job Accommodation Network (JAN), ‘Costs and Benefits of Accommodation,’ October 2020 Often the reason employers are reluctant to hire disabled workers is more complicated, and more deeply engrained. It has to do with beliefs that disabled people are “less than,” the result of centuries of stigmatisation and discrimination. Consider for a moment (and, I promise, no-one will ever know the answer unless you tell them), have you ever snuck a second look at a person in a wheelchair, or an amputee? Have you ever felt nervous about “asking the wrong question” when interacting with someone with a disability? If you’ve answered yes to either, then it’s possible you’re identifying your own stigma. Evidence demonstrates that workers with disabilities face stigmatisation and discrimination in the workplace and, as such, are less likely to be accepted by co-workers. This leads to adverse psychological impacts, including stress and anxiety. There are also negative organisational impacts. Low social acceptance reduces collaboration and innovation and can lead to lower productivity and performance. Stigma is the primary reason that people with invisible disabilities (who make up two thirds of the one billion people worldwide with disabilities) choose not to disclose their condition to employers.

Understanding stigma against workers with disabilities

Stigmas are not evidence-based views. They are views that are upheld because the people around us believe them too; in other words, they are socially constructed. Stigmas are based on personal attributes (for example, an amputated limb), that are considered flawed within a specific context (for example, a running track). A popular model for understanding stigma towards people with disabilities highlights six dimensions of stigma:
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Stigma dimension explanation
Source: The six dimensions of stigma for people with disabilities. Jones & Corrigan, 2014.

Different conditions trigger different types of stigma reactions. For example, research has shown that individuals with HIV are more stigmatised if they are perceived as responsible for contracting the condition (‘origin’). Mental illness has been assumed to elicit higher threats to other people, which leads to more stigmatisation (‘peril’). Some research suggests that chronic illnesses are the most highly stigmatised (‘course’). Finally, in my own research, Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD) was more highly stigmatised on the ‘aesthetic qualities’ dimension, tapping into decades of cultural disgust with the subject of poop. While models like this help make sense of the low employment rates of people with disabilities, they still force a laser-focus on the condition itself. By staring the supposed “problem” right in the face, we miss an opportunity to celebrate the unique qualities of different people, with different bodies, different backgrounds and different abilities.

Diffability: A more inclusive way of understanding people with disabilities

The term diffability is gaining popularity as an alternative to disability, that removes the negative connotations around the prefix dis that literally means apart, deprived or excluded. (If you really want to get into it, check out Avesta Alani’s book Diffability). Showcasing individuals with diffability allows us to spotlight unique powers that are often overshadowed by stories that focus on disability. Stories of diffability help make the case for hiring workers with disabilities, not simply to meet inclusivity criteria or moral obligations, but because it brings unique skills and perspectives into the organisation that are simply good for business.

Diffability storytelling

Neurodiversity: Shifting perceptions

Neurodiversity has gone through a bit of a re-brand lately. Neurodivergent individuals include those with dyslexia, ADHD and autism. Many famous names and highly successful professionals, such as Richard Branson and Bill Gates, have talked openly about their conditions, which floods the marketplace with positive stories that showcase the unique abilities of neurodivergent workers. Although every individual is unique, commonly attributed skills include:
  • Visual thinking

  • Attention to detail

  • Pattern recognition

  • Visual memory

  • Creative thinking

Research suggests that teams with neurodivergent professionals can be 30% more productive.
In an organisation that focuses on diffability over disability, disclosure conversations and accommodation requests might look a lot different. Taking one of the examples above, “email follow ups for clarity,” Why should this accommodation request focus on the disability over the adjustment? There are many reasons why an individual might require this accommodation, and there are many reasons why this could simply be considered good practice that benefits the organisation, especially in an industry that requires deliberate decision-making tracking, for example, investment banking. By removing the label and shifting the focus away from disability towards ability, we can start to unpick deep-seated stigma and create a new story that celebrates difference.

Addressing stigma towards people with disabilities in your organisation

  • Encourage open conversations in your organisation, focusing on ability not disability. Disability/ invisible illness communities and ERGs are a great place to start. For workers who are comfortable, champion their successes without over-indexing on their disability. Invite speakers into your organisation to talk about their strengths and achievements, without spending excessive time talking about the nature of their disability or the hurdles they’ve faced. Small storytelling adjustments like this can help to shift mindsets.
  • Get to know your disabled workforce better. In order for colleagues to feel comfortable talking openly about their needs with their employers, colleagues and peers, a culture of absolute trust is vital. This starts with an inclusive and empathetic hiring process and, crucially, ongoing support once a person with a disability is hired. As a starting point, consider how candidates are invited to disclose their disability – quite often this is an impersonal, highly unempathetic process.
  • Employers, challenge your own misconceptions. Ensure that for every open job role, the skills and activities required are clearly stated. When considering a disabled applicant, ask yourself, “Am I making assumptions about their abilities based on my (likely limited) knowledge of their condition, or am I focusing above all else on the skills and tasks I need this person to do?
  • Experiment with disability-agnostic accommodation requests. Can you separate the legalities from the accommodation request, and focus discussions about adjustments on empowering individuals instead of ‘dealing with’ their perceived limitations?
  • For workers with disabilities, consider the six dimensions of stigma when facing potential discrimination at work. Eradicating centuries-long stigma doesn’t happen overnight. Understanding the unconscious misconceptions, you might you be up against can be a source of strength. While it is not your job to educate every person you encounter who is underinformed, being able to address their biases concisely and directly is a useful approach to have in your back pocket.
  • Key Takeaways

    In times of talent scarcity, overlooking an eager and available source of talent is entirely illogical. It’s time for employers to dig deep and address the tough question of WHY stigmatisation towards workers with disabilities still exists in their organisation. By sharing stories of diffability, highlighting the unique capabilities of workers with disabilities, we can all start to shift the socially constructed narrative of “otherness,” leading to more inclusive organisations that are good for people – and for business.