Mental disability matters too: Don’t ignore those with non-physical impairments

Huge strides have been made in the battle to hire people with physical disabilities, but progress is still needed when it comes to hiring those with mental disabilities says Aubrey Blanche:

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Feb 23, 2024

As all CHROs will know, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a ‘disability’ is defined as a physical or mental impairment that limits at least one major life activity.

Given that a whopping 13.5 million Americans could now be described as having one, plus the fact there is greater awareness about the repercussions of discrimination against people with a disability. there’s absolutely no doubt that great strides have been made when it comes to employment inclusion and hiring people who face challenges.

Overall, in 2022, around 21% of people with a disability in the US were employed – up from the 19% recorded in 2021, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That is the highest rate since the US began tracking this statistic in 2008.

And yet, in some pockets, there is still a problem.

Although 90% of Fortune 500 companies have hired applicants with physical disabilities, just 20% say they’ve hired those with severe mental disabilities – people who suffer from a mental disorder characterized by a clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotional regulation, or behavior.

Mental disability is also covered by the ADA, but data shows that only 38.1% of adults with significant psychiatric disabilities are employed full-time. This compares to 61.7% of adults without disabilities.

Fear of being able to accommodate severe a mental disability – plus that person’s potential impact on people around them – is often cited as a reason employers are wary of mental disorders, but is this an old-fashioned stereotype that needs to go?

TLNT spoke to  Aubrey Blanche, senior director of people operations & strategic programs at Culture Amp which works with the likes of Salesforce and Etsy, to create better employee experiences for neurodiverse talent, to find out:

Q: It feels like neurodiversity as a concept is well understood now, but mental and physical disabilities are not seen the same – why?

A:There has definitely been progress made on the “awareness” battle, but there are many more steps that need to be taken. Just because someone is aware of “neurodiversity” (which is often incorrectly used as a euphemism for autism), doesn’t mean they’ve unpacked or addressed the stigma associated with it. Additionally, being aware of neurodiversity doesn’t begin to address the societal and organizational barriers that people with different neurotypes face. There is definitely a long way to go because there’s a particular experience with mental disabilities – because actually, most often, it is invisible. Because mental disabilities are not always apparent, they are often questioned as to whether they’re “real” or “severe enough” to warrant specific support. That’s why it’s so crucial to take the mindset that literally everyone – whether neurotypical or neurodiverse – requires specific support to be successful (it’s just that neurotypical people’s needs are met by default).”

Q: Given this, are employers’ reservations about hiring/accommodating neurodiverse people still the same?

A: “I’d say that the main concerns are the same, in that they center around concerns of costs for accommodations (which are often negligible), or the way that they will interact with neurotypical people. But while there certainly are differences that need to be considered, it’s simply silly to think that workplaces would intentionally or unintentionally exclude more than 30% of people from their potential talent pools.

Q: What are the main perceptions that need to be overcome?

A: “I think the biggest misperception that needs to be overcome is that the workplace adjustments needed to support neurodiverse people are “too difficult.” For the most part, they are things that simply define good management. These including

  • Creating intentional processes and structures for employees to request what they need to be successful
  • Being clear about expectations and the “definition of done,” in writing if needed/ requested
  • Providing options for employees to engage (e.g., asynchronously or with camera off), depending on what works for them
  • Working flexibly by default, allowing employees to manage their own time and location as long as necessary work is completed

There are other examples too, but as you can see from these examples, accommodating neurodiverse people isn’t actually that complicated. It simply requires intentionality and effort (that’s rarely about any type of financial cost).”

Q: I know you’re a bit advocate of employee resource groups. How would these help in this regard?

A: “Employee resource groups can be extremely useful in creating a safe work environment, but should never be tasked with making the overall environment inclusive and equitable. The most important contribution of ERGs is in building connection and safety. I’ve seen the most successful ones first normalize living and working with disability, and second serve as a sort of “hive mind” for strategies and clarity about what an employee might need. This can help both with accessing a formal accommodations program, but can also just be about flexing the workplace to work for specific employees. For example, at Culture Amp, some conversations among our Campers with ADHD resulted in having group calls to co-work; a sort of virtual body doubling that can help people with executive functioning challenges focus and be productive.”

Q: Are there accommodation ‘quick wins’ that employers can do when hiring more neurodiverse people?

A: “The first and most powerful thanks that organizations can do is to collect data on disability and to create a clear, accessible accommodations process. Without data, it’s impossible to know what’s working and what’s not for people with disabilities. And without an accommodation process, you’re likely putting many disabled people at a disadvantage as soon as they walk through the door by giving non-disabled people an automatic leg up.”

Q: Is a new problem that employers are cautious of deliberately pursuing neurodiverse people, as this could now be considered to be positive discrimination?

A: “My personal belief is that positive discrimination is mostly a strawman argument, and comes from a sometimes intentional misunderstanding what equity means and what DEI is meant to accomplish. The idea of “positive discrimination” is mostly based on an idea that ignores significant and meaningful historical inequities that exist in society and among organizations, and is based on some entirely irrational idea that someone would be hired because of their demographics alone, instead of their skills and abilities. Interestingly, I’ve rarely heard someone raise concerns about neurotypical people being hired solely for their demographics, even though statistically, that’s a significantly more common occurrence. I would say Intentionally creating cultures and processes that include and support neurodiverse people is an objectively good thing (for people, businesses, etc.). Letting people know tthis is true isn’t discrimination. It’s good marketing.”

Q: Will neurodiverse employees always struggle in the workplace without accommodation, or are you hopeful attitudes will change, so that working with these people is not seen as ‘accommodation’?

A: “I think that anyone whose needs are not the default will struggle in a workplace designed for someone with different needs. I think that’s why a fundamental mindset shift is necessary: talent and business leaders need to start evolving who they think of as the “default” employee. At Culture Amp, we use the principles of equitable design in all of our talent programs, which means that we think of neurodiverse (and BIPOC, and trans), employees as the “default” experience that we design for. When we do this, we are ensuring that people who are most likely to be marginalized are at the forefront of our priorities. But the amazing part is that when we design for those cases, we generally also build structures that work for people from less marginalized backgrounds (like White and/or neurotypical) people as well.”

Q: What’s the employment outlook for neurodiverse people? Surely the skills shortage is causing employers to look for different pools of talent?

A: “I’m optimistic about the future. The sheer explosion of discussion and work around including neurodiverse people suggests that pressure is building to create structures that consider and support the experiences of this huge chunk of humanity. That said, there’s a ton of work ahead needed in order to turn that awareness and lots of good intention into institutional structures and accountability.”