Disabled Employees Thrive in Psychologically Safe Businesses
In the ever-evolving landscape of workplace diversity and inclusion, it has become increasingly evident that creating an environment of psychological safety benefits all employees.
Psychologically safe employers foster atmospheres where every individual, especially those who identify as belonging to one or more underrepresented communities, feels comfortable, valued, and able to voice their thoughts and concerns without fear of reprisal or judgment.
Disabled employees can thrive in psychologically safe environments because they can express their unique skills, perspectives, talents, and lived experiences as a disabled person without fear of reprisal. During NDEAM (National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is every October), I am personally celebrating the symbiotic relationship between psychological safety and disabled employees' success.
Coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety refers to "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking." This is the foundation upon which open communication, innovation, and collaboration can thrive. Businesses prioritizing psychological safety cultivate environments where employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas, making mistakes, and contributing to the organization's growth.
Psychological safety is an essential component to disabled employee success. Many disabled individuals face unique challenges and barriers in the workplace, including physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities. They may look different, sound different, or process information differently than the non-disabled majority. Disabled adults frequently carry the emotional scars of being treated poorly by others as children or in the secondary education setting.
Fear of colleague discrimination, isolation, or ignorance hinders disabled employees’ engagement and productivity. In psychologically safe environments, these barriers don’t exist. Psychologically safe environments allow disabled employees to focus on what they can accomplish, rather than fearing the repercussions of biases deriving from what others think they can’t accomplish.
In psychologically safe workplaces, disabled employees are both welcomed and actively included. Supervisors inquire about accommodations before the disabled employee is forced to fail and then request them. Adjustments and adaptations are thought of as resources required for success, not individuals “gaming the system” or “cheating. Inclusivity leads to increased productivity as disabled employees are enabled to fully engage in their tasks without the added burden of dealing with a hostile, unsupportive environment.
Accommodations can include but are not limited to:
Process changes (different schedules, leaves)
Facility changes (desk assignment close to door, elimination of florescent lighting)
Tools (Grammarly, screen readers, special keyboards, second monitors)
Extra time on assignments or tests
Alternative forms of communication (Braille, ASL, large print, captions, accessible .PDF files)
Assistance with inaccessible digital software (help using Miro, Figma, or Mural, for example)
Most of the accommodations listed above either have ZERO cost or relatively low costs.
Disability is a well-known innovation catalyst; disabled employees bring a wealth of unique perspectives and problem-solving skills to. When disabled employees experience psychological safety, they are more likely to share their insights and contribute to creative solutions that benefit the entire organization.
This creates a positive feedback loop as word will get around the disability community that the organization is psychologically safe, attracting even more employees who crave an employer who values psychological safety. The diverse thinking that arises from a psychologically safe environment leads to breakthroughs and competitive advantages that may not have been otherwise possible.
Psychological safety is not just for the benefit of disabled employees – everyone benefits from improvements in return on investment and higher profits known to be generated by organizations that value both diversity and psychological safety. Mental wellness improvements are also associated with psychological safety. Businesses that prioritize psychological safety have employees who experience less stress and anxiety related to their work environment.
When employees, disabled or not, can be themselves without fear of judgment or bias, their overall job satisfaction and mental health will improve significantly. Creating a psychologically safe workplace will positively influence broader organizational culture. When management and peers behave in an inclusive and empathetic manner to everyone, colleagues will be led to exhibit a more compassionate and accepting work environment.
This ripple effect can promote diversity and inclusion throughout the organization, attracting top talent and improving retention rates. It is impossible to be an industry leader or innovator in a competitive workplace in an organization that does not value safety.
Supporting an environment where everyone feels included, valued, and free to express themselves allows organizations to unlock the full potential of all of their employees, including disabled employees. This, in turn, leads to greater productivity, innovation, and overall employee well-being, creating a working world where everyone wins.
Inclusive futures and a more sustainable world cannot be achieved without psychologically safe employers. Businesses who have already integrated psychological safety practices into their day-to-day operations are at the forefront of creating opportunities for disabled individuals to thrive in the workplace.
Sheri Bryne-Haber is one of Linkedin's top voices for social impact. Sheri is a prominent global subject matter expert in the fields of disability and accessibility in business and educational settings. She is best known for launching digital accessibility programs at multiple Fortune 200 companies including McDonald’s, Albertsons, and VMware, as well as consulting on government accessibility. She is the author of "Giving A Damn About Accessibility" which you can find at your local bookstore.