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EARN 2023 Think Tank: Summary Report

Explore the overall key takeaways, policy ideas, and directions for the future from EARN's virtual Think Tank, “Transforming HR Through Innovative Disability-Inclusive Policies and Practices.”

Today, leading organizations recognize that diverse perspectives add value to their workplaces and that disability is an essential element of this mix. How organizations increase disability inclusion may vary depending on several factors, but the foundation for success lies in human resources (HR) policies and practices.

To explore this issue, the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and its Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) hosted a virtual Think Tank, “Transforming HR Through Innovative Disability-Inclusive Policies and Practices,” on July 27, 2023. The Think Tank convened employers, consultants, community-based organizations, and disability advocates to identify innovative strategies for increasing workforce disability inclusion, both across industries and at the individual organization level.

The Think Tank event included two breakout sessions, during which participants were placed into four smaller groups to identify key challenges and suggest potential solutions. Each group focused on one of the four stages of the employment lifecycle: recruitment, hiring, retention, and advancement. The overarching goal was to identify policies and practices that experts deem effective, and which may need to change to ensure equitable and inclusive workplaces. The information gathered will inform policy priorities and support good jobs that offer the potential for career advancement for disabled workers from all backgrounds.

Key Takeaways

During a full group session at the end of the event, participants shared key takeaways from their discussions. Three major themes emerged from the individual feedback received:

  1. Advancing workplace disability inclusion requires a radical reimagining of HR, led by proud people with disabilities who champion the issue within individual organizations and at the local, state, and national levels.
  2. Organizations must establish and employ targeted HR metrics and analytics to measure effectiveness and use this qualitative and quantitative data to continually improve.
  3. Small businesses employ nearly half the workers in the United States but have fewer dedicated HR supports. As a result, they may need more education and support, including at the state and local levels, to address regional workforce variations.

Policy Ideas

Based on the Think Tank discussions, policymakers and employers can consider the policy ideas below to enhance workplace disability inclusion.

Federal Policy Ideas

  • Design and implement consistent standards for artificial intelligence (AI)-driven candidate screening tools and automated applicant tracking systems.
  • Support small businesses in increasing diverse recruitment and hiring by sharing strategies for hiring applicants with disabilities in the absence of the infrastructure of larger organizations. To facilitate these efforts, DOL and the Small Business Administration could collaborate to create and effectively disseminate capacity-building resources.
  • Support expansion of access to mental health services including flexibilities such as telehealth benefits, promoting employee assistance programs (EAPs), and establishing recognized certifications for EAP service providers.
  • Support or sponsor funding opportunities to promote career advancement for people with disabilities. (For example, facilitate storytelling through sponsorship of a master class webinar series on “positive deviance,” in which organizational leaders with disabilities would share their success strategies with others seeking to advance in their careers.)
  • Rethink regional workforce development planning to better support diverse candidates. This would include engaging local, county, state, and federal representatives to draft regional workforce development plans that embed disability considerations into all aspects of workforce development planning as a strategic priority.
  • Leverage lessons from successful federal veteran hiring programs (e.g., national awareness campaigns, operational community partnerships, training courses for veterans, wraparound services, access to available supports, etc.) to identify strategies that may increase employment rates for people with disabilities.
  • Address work disincentives, such as asset limits and health care benefits, to encourage people with disabilities to work and advance without fear of losing needed supports.

State, Regional, and Local Area Policy Ideas

  • Develop upskilling and reskilling programs within state workforce development programs, in partnership with industry, to increase opportunities for both unemployed job seekers and existing employees with disabilities seeking to advance in their careers.
  • Support collaboration between workforce services systems and businesses related to people with disabilities. Examples might include organizing informational “road shows” with workforce partners; conducting proactive outreach to communities on disability hiring initiatives, benefits, and incentives; and highlighting role models and community champions.
  • Create incentives for small businesses to diversify their hiring and share related resources through local chambers of commerce, government, technical education programs, and philanthropy. These may include disability hiring provisions in state contracting requirements, working with high schools and community colleges to build training programs to address anticipated labor needs, and identifying local champions at larger businesses to mentor smaller businesses.

Workplace Policy Ideas

  • Widen candidate pools through diverse recruitment sources such as community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and vocational rehabilitation and other workforce service providers.
  • Make disability inclusion part of business strategy across the employment lifecycle by engaging organizational leadership, especially those with disabilities; incorporating disability into existing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) initiatives; training and coaching recruiters, hiring managers, and the general workforce on disability; establishing employee resource groups; and measuring and assessing progress toward goals.
  • Ensure inclusive recruitment and hiring processes by involving people with disabilities in leadership and program development; scrutinizing AI screening filters, applicant tracking systems, and job descriptions to make sure that qualified people are not inappropriately screened out; reviewing interview processes to ensure candidates can truly demonstrate skills; addressing accessibility barriers; and ensuring access to accommodations.
  • Employ targeted strategies and metrics to ensure equity in advancement and retention, such as implementing return-to-work policies, including flexible work arrangements, that consider the specific needs of employees with disabilities; offering access to mental health services and supports; demonstrating a commitment to organizational DEIA; and assessing equity in access to advancement opportunities, such as mentoring and workplace sponsorship programs.

Directions for the Future

One theme underscored every policy idea that surfaced during the Think Tank: we cannot rely on the status quo to ensure employers will fully tap the skills and talents of people with disabilities. Participants expressed an overarching feeling of “we have tried that before” and a need to “dig deeper” to identify new and innovative approaches to recruitment, hiring, retention, and advancement that are truly inclusive.

Participants also pointed out that part of every HR department’s purpose is to minimize risk for the organization, a stance that can lead to challenges in recruiting, hiring, retaining, and advancing people with disabilities. As a result, there is a need for a culture shift to recognize accommodations as just part of doing business. Fostering this shift in mindset will require collaboration between policymakers, researchers, businesses, community-based organizations, and the disability community. DEIA champions will need to build additional networks that welcome and encourage innovation and participation from emerging leaders, historically underserved communities, and small businesses to ensure deep engagement and understanding.

To engage diverse communities, participants suggested looking to the lessons of the pandemic, when a great deal of innovation related to practices of workplace flexibility and the support of workers’ mental health occurred very quickly and effectively. Participants also strongly agreed that people with disabilities must serve as key informants and architects for any changes in policies or practices. In the spirit of “nothing about us without us,” efforts to effect positive change must include the voices of job seekers and employees with disabilities, including those who have and have not had success advancing professionally within their organizations.

In conclusion, Think Tank participants made it clear that additional innovation beyond existing best practices is needed to advance disability inclusion. The desire to innovate is strong because organizational success today requires not just technical skills but diverse perspectives on how to solve problems in a rapidly changing world. Identifying these new strategies and ensuring organizations are equipped to implement them is key to an inclusive future workforce—one in which all people can prepare for and obtain employment and grow and thrive in meaningful long-term careers.