Don’t leave disability equity behind when building your DEI initiatives

Aaron Halls
Including Disability in Your DEI Initiatives - 420x330 (1)

Whether you are showing up to work in-person or virtually, you’re not just bringing your professional identity but so much more. Here at YW Boston, we’ve previously delved into what we consider the “Big 8” social identities: various aspects of ourselves that affect “how people and systems treat us and the opportunities that are available to us.” One of these social identities is ability, which is “The diverse array of differences in physical, mental, cognitive, developmental, learning, and/or emotional make-up. It also includes mental health and the impact of social experiences such as trauma and surviving abuse (Appalachian State University). 

Through this blog post we’ll explore disability equity and why it’s important to incorporate when focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the professional setting. Once you do, you’ll be able to create a workplace where everyone feels supported and valued.

An introduction to disability equity

YW Boston recently completed a series of workshops with Partners for Youth with Disabilities, an organization who was integral in informing our understanding of disability as a part of the ability identity. If you’re not used to talking about disability as a topic, you might be nervous about accidently saying the wrong thing or might not even know if saying disability is okay. That’s understandable and a first step in the process of learning!  

First off, get comfortable saying the word disability and know that saying the word disability is not bad. It took the combined effort and dedication of many folx with disabilities to be recognized and get the Americans with Disabilities Act passed which “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities (US Department of Labor).” Many people with disabilities identify as disabled and are proud to be a part of the disability community. As a good rule of thumb when working with individuals, notice how they identify and follow their lead. 

We also learned about the Social Model of Disability, a key framework for understanding disability equity. With the Social Model of Disability, disability is not a diagnosis, unlike the Medical Model of Disability, but a product of one’s social and physical environment. For example, if a person who uses a wheelchair is in their apartment and able to easily access everything they need to, they are not disabled in their physical environment through the Social Model of Disability. However, if that same person were to go to their office with their wheelchair, but could not get around easily due to the layout of their building and office space, they would be disabled by their surroundings, according to the Social Model of Disability.

The Social Model of Disability holds accountable those in charge of our physical and social environments to make necessary, accessible changes. It’s important when thinking about disability equity, which helps proactively accommodate the needs of people with disabilities.

Intersectionality is key to disability equity

When thinking about disability equity it’s also important to think about how the social identity of disability can intersect with other forms of identity, such as race and gender. Like a house of cards, these social identities can stack on top of one another, “creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage (Oxford Dictionary).” As we discussed previously, this framework of intersectionality is “essential to combatting the interwove prejudices people face in their daily lives.” 

For example, for a Black woman with a disability, their “[social] identity markers do not exist interdependently… creating a complex convergence of oppression.”  Not only may a person experience discrimination for their race, for their gender, and for their disability, but those experiences are interwoven. Assumptions made about one of their identities will also impact how they are treated regarding their other identities. 

The National Disability Institute found that in 2020, “20 percent of [Americans] with disabilities working in January were out of work in May. Among BIPOC Americans with disabilities, 35 percent lost their jobs [during the COVID-19 Pandemic].” A 2020 report from McKinsey & Company on Women in the Workplace found that “[women with disabilities] are almost twice as likely as women overall to be uncomfortable sharing the challenges they’re facing [during COVID-19] with their teammates or managers and more than twice as likely to be uncomfortable talking about their health at work.” This is why organizations implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts should be aware of how their work supports people with overlapping identities. 

We must use the pandemic as an opportunity to better understand disability accessibility. 

For some people with disabilities, COVID-19 has had benefits when it comes to having an accessible working style. CNN talked to Joanna Hanaka, a disability rights advocate that’s highly allergic to fragrances, who found that “Working from home makes it easier to control her environment, and she has much more energy from not being exposed to allergens.”  

Here at YW Boston, we have become increasingly aware throughout the COVID-19 pandemic that we had work to do around accessibility. We have started to utilize Zoom transcribing tech and are more aware of accommodating different learning styles during our programs. As we plan to have staff reenter our office, we are already thinking about how we can be more accessible. This includes strategies such as adaptable furniture and quiet areas for Zoom calls, for instance. Decisions related to reentering the office should be supported with a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens. Learn more from our recent blog on facilitating an equitable return to the workplace. 

Taking the time to think through disability inclusion in the office is an important part of DEI work and something that should be revisited frequently to be sustained. Implementing these strategies will make professional settings feel safe for workers with disabilities and help them feel like they’re valued members of the team able to complete their best work. 

How do you begin to implement disability inclusion in your workplace? 

One way to start implementing disability inclusion in your workspace is to make sure staff have required disability awareness training. As written for the Harvard Business Review by Ted Kennedy, Jr., Chad Jerdee, and Laurie Henneborn, “The primary goals of this training [is] to help people better understand and empathize with the challenges their colleagues may face and reduce the stigma of being disabled.” These trainings should be required for both employees with disabilities and those without as it keeps everyone on the same page as far as disability related language and resources to use as a baseline. 

Inclusion requires taking action on what you’ve learned. Next, start implementing disability inclusion is by providing accommodations for your employees with disabilities. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) submitted a survey among various employers that had contacted them for recommendations on how to go about accommodations for employees with disabilities. Here, 90% of employers felt like the accommodations they utilized “Retained a valued employee,” 68% of employers felt like the accommodations they utilized “Increased Their Employee’s Productivity,” and 57% of employers felt like the accommodations they utilized “Improved interactions with co-workers.”  

This past year, many organizations have begun to build their diversity, equity, and inclusion plans. Be sure to include disability equity as a key aspect of your plan, and recognize how building a more accessible workplace will support everyone – those with and without disabilities. And as you begin to ensure your workplace is accessible to people with disabilities, make sure you hold space for ideas and feedback. You want to ensure you know – are these the right strategies? Are there any negative impacts on people with intersecting identities? What’s next? 

Continue to build an understanding of social identities and intersectionality.

Implementing disability inclusion into a workspace is such an important part of diversity, equity, and inclusion work. it is crucial to have an understanding of all forms of social identity, how they show up in the workplace, and how they intersect. Here at YW Boston, we offer DEI Workshops with topics such as Understanding Social Identities and Intersectionality. Our expert facilitators can help you gain a thorough understanding of both concepts and start your journey in understanding how your team can make your workplace more equitable  for all. 


About YW Boston

As the first YWCA in the nation, YW Boston has been at the forefront of advancing equity for over 150 years. Through our DE&I services—InclusionBoston and LeadBoston—as well as our advocacy work and F.Y.R.E. Initiative, we help individuals and organizations change policies, practices, attitudes, and behaviors with a goal of creating more inclusive environments where women, people of color, and especially women of color can succeed.

Whether your organization is large or small, you’re just starting out with DEI, or are further along on the journey, YW Boston will work with you to find the right solutions. YW Boston offers a variety of DEI Services designed to create lasting change. For more information, please contact Sheera Bornstein at  

About InclusionBoston 

InclusionBoston advances diversity, equity, and inclusion by partnering with organizations looking for improved results. Using our advanced assessment tool and the latest research on behavioral and organizational change, we partner with organizations to create an action plan and provide them with the resources needed to drive lasting change. Our customized, evidence-based approach builds internal capacity and promotes cultural change while supporting organizations throughout their journey. YW Boston also offers one-day workshops where participants explore frameworks, develop knowledge, and engage in dialogue.  

Ready to unlock the power of diversity in the workplace? Click here to learn more about InclusionBoston and request your free consultation.