You’ve hired disabled people (great) – but now you need to mentor them

Hiring a disabled employed is just the first step. Next comes the need to mentor them. But mentors can feel overwhelmed by this prospect, says the IWSIA's Deborah Williamson:

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Feb 26, 2024

Huge – and extremely welcomed – strides have been made by US employers in recent years when it comes to hiring people with disabilities.

In 2022, approximately 21% of people with a disability (more than 6 million people) in the US were employed. This is up from 19% in 2021, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. To put it another way, this is the highest rate of workplace participation since this stastic started being tracked in 2008.

However, hiring staff – as HR professionals will know – marks just the start of a whole complicated employee lifecycle plan, and one thing we’re noticing is that things can come unstuck when it comes to people mentoring staff with disabilities.

It can quite easily be the case that employees become easily overwhelmed when it comes to mentoring people with a disability and fostering their career growth. And who can blame them. After all, what are best practices here?

To tackle this I’ve distilled a complex response to this question into three simple, yet fundamental, points.

I’ll also share the story of the remarkable career taken up by a young woman who is blind and has a neurological condition that prevents her from reading braille.

Partner with the experts

Your current mentoring system may not fit everyone, yet you may not have the ability to customize your processes because of a lack of in-house expertise.

After you’ve checked with your employee with a disability about their career needs, ask them what the right support is for them in the workplace. They may be able to suggest external services your business can access.

From a US perspective, a service exists that is based in California.

The California Department of Rehabilitation has a dedicated team called Blind Field Services (BFS). A veteran member of the team is Jessica Hatcher who says the team advocates for people in her state who are blind or visually impaired.

Importantly, BFS liaises with them to find out and access potential work, education, and training options. Hatcher understands there are unique barriers to independence and meaningful employment. The team offers guidance, counseling, career exploration, employment services, independent living skills, and services, assessed for assistive technology needs.

Using vendors, the department offers services including low vision evaluation or mobility services for orientation and mobility in house.

The vendors determine what the persons needs are for assistive technology, low vision aids/glasses etc. Learn more about BFS – and search for a similar team in the state where you’re based.

Get to know your workers with disabilities

Get a sense of the interests and career aspirations of your employees with disability by asking them.

They may also tell you or other staff without being prompted.

Someone in the latter category is from Down Under. Nas Campanella is the national disability affairs reporter for Australia’s government-funded TV and radio news organization, the ABC.

She has been blind since she was six months old and has always aspired to be a journalist. During her college days, she easily secured unpaid internships as a journalism student, but there was “tension”, she says when she turned up for job interviews for paid work.

“People would ask some pretty awful questions like … ‘how the hell can you be a journalist if you can’t see,” she told Vision Australia. Meanwhile, other would-be employers claimed she wouldn’t be “safe” in their workplace.

The ABC offered her a cadetship – like an apprenticeship – in 2011. Campanella navigated regional reporting, then news reading for seven years on the ABC’s youth radio offshoot, Triple J, before she eventually pitched to leadership to create a national disability affairs position for her. They did.

It makes sense, she’s a disability reporter with experience of disabilities. Because of a muscle condition, she can’t read braille, so harnesses aural tech to read.

These days, Campanella is also a keynote speaker for hire. Beyond being a great advocate for employing people with a disability, she’s a voice for her employer’s brand. Her advice is for workplaces to be safe spaces for all staff and for management to have open conversations about adjustments or supports needed to do the job. Focus on solutions instead of just problems, she says.

What Campanella’s story highlights is that if your staff with a disability approach you about doing a bigger or different role or task, they’re telling you they see themselves grow in your organization.

How can you make that happen? Ask them, and others in your business, and get expert advice if necessary.

Good mentoring & career-nurturing principles

I’ve come across some brilliant mentoring programs (and others not so good), over the years.

The culmination of all this tell me mentoring is a process you can’t leave to chance.

Both mentors and mentees need professional development and learning. That’s because workplace mentors are crucial to preparing staff with a disability to succeed.

A good mentor will almost have a sixth sense for challenges before they evolve into issues.

They’re something of an ‘honest broker’ to help navigate through problems.

So I’d encourage mentors to create a personalized mentoring program with the mentee, including:

  • Set clear standards and expectations for behavior
  • Determine how regularly they’ll give construction feedback and which mentoring methodologies and strategies they’ll use
  • Aim to have a stable mentoring relationship
  • Establish early warning indicators for employees at risk of leaving or not making the grade
  • Create a transparent system to manage, measure, and report on the mentoring process and its effectiveness
  • Ask the mentee for feedback on how the mentoring is going for them
  • Become an active advocate for diversity awareness among the business or organization, and
  • Identify how the mentee can build their own mentoring skills and pilot them with new staff, ensuring this upskilling is recognized.

You’ll note that those principles span individual supports, comprehensive training, and have an organization-wide flavor.

If this snapshot of best practices has whetted your appetite to explore more, I’d encourage you to check out the Ready, Willing and ABLE report.

It’s been created by the Californian Department of Rehabilitation and the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation America (IWSI America), and it analyzes mentoring and career growth through the lens of apprenticeships.

This report is in its second edition and discusses funding, services, and other supports to guide and drive your success.