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Unemployed in Translation

By Donna Bungard
Sr. Accessibility Program Manager at Indeed
Billion Strong Global Advisor

The commonly known expression “lost in translation” resonates with many individuals, typically referring to instances where communication fails due to the inherent difficulties in translating from one language to another. This phenomenon typically occurs because language is a dynamic social construct—a concept crafted and embraced by the members of a society. Consequently, it leaves us open to the potential for diverse interpretations, allowing for varied meanings and subtle differences to nuances.

Many don’t recognize that disability, much like language, is also a social construct.  There is no natural definition, qualification criteria, or pre-determined indicator of “what is disabled”. The concept is fluid and subject to interpretation. In certain communities, debates may arise about how disabled is disabled enough to self identify, adding complexity to the already ambiguous nature of the term. Disability, then, is a multifaceted and inherently human aspect of our shared experiences.

The disability lies not within the bodies and minds of individuals, but rather in a society that struggles to navigate and accommodate the vast array of human differences.

Nevertheless, our societal structures are predominantly designed to cater to the needs of what is perceived as the majority—those fitting the vague but socially agreed upon criteria of the non-disabled population. This is evident in our educational systems, professional networks, and even much of our community infrastructure, all tailored to accommodate the perceived majority.

This preference  leaves individuals with disabilities at a disadvantage, often facing limited access to equitable education and subsequently encountering fewer job opportunities as they grow into adulthood. For many adults with disabilities, this translates into unemployment and underemployment. 

What does it mean to be ‘unemployed in translation’? 

It signifies that employment processes are either inaccessible or introduce barriers for people with disabilities. Furthermore, there exist biases and assumptions about the capabilities of individuals with disabilities within the workforce. Society’s failure to comprehend the extensive diversity of disabilities may cause employers to misinterpret the meanings and nuances associated with individuals with disabilities.

While it may be tempting to place blame solely on employers, such a perspective is neither just or accurate. The challenge arises in defining disability as a social construct, a task complicated by the diverse ways in which it manifests. The Center for Disease Control in the United States characterizes disability as “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).” This definition, however, carries varied meanings for different individuals, considering the many ways disability can present itself. Taking into account the whole person and their intersecting social identities, it becomes apparent that the sheer number of variables makes it challenging for organizations to know how to be more disability inclusive.

Like any group that faces systemic bias, the key to disability inclusion in the workforce lies in transforming the systems themselves. While hiring individuals to fulfill government quotas can certainly help that person, it falls short of ensuring equitable access to education and employment for the larger Disability Community. Additionally, the act of meeting a quota doesn’t guarantee that individuals are placed in roles where they can use their skills and talents to thrive – much less grow. To truly effect change, we must step back and examine the fundamental pivot points of influence within our systems.

Let’s explore perspectives on disability inclusion in the workplace.

Better Work Leads to Better Lives

At Indeed, we understand that better work lives have the potential to improve many aspects of an individual’s life. From sense of purpose and belonging, to the more logistical aspects of earning an income. We often say that, “talent is universal but opportunity is not.” This means that we focus on what people DO bring to the table; skills, passion, lived experiences, and insight. We focus on matching the right talent to the right role to everyone’s benefit. This emphasis on skills-based hiring helps to create better equality and, by extension, more disability inclusion. 

We are a Billion Strong

Billion Strong is an organization dedicated to disability pride and self disclosure. We recognize two conflicting truths about the disability community: we need accurate numbers to fuel a movement, and that in some situations, people may find it difficult or even unsafe to disclose their disability. Our overarching goal is to make it safer, make it more accepted and overall normalize disability in society’s eyes – as we already know that disability is normal for all humans. 

Operationalizing inclusion Leads to more effective translation 

Prior to expecting a population of more than a billion people to be comfortable with self identification, it is essential to establish an environment where individuals with disabilities feel secure in disclosing. To facilitate this, organizations can take concrete steps to foster a culture of openness and inclusivity. Here are some actionable measures to guide organizations in creating a more welcoming space for people with disabilities to disclose their status.

Educational Opportunities

Given the vast diversity of disability, many people have limited experience knowingly working with people with disabilities. Recognizing that societal narratives have historically undervalued the contributions of individuals with disabilities, it becomes unrealistic to expect everyone to inherently grasp their significance in the workplace. By teaching teams about disability, social models, and how to be more inclusive, organizations can play a crucial role in broadening perspectives and embracing the diverse strengths that individuals with disabilities bring to the workforce.

“What are your access needs?”

All people have access needs: from the rural worker who may need considerations when making travel arrangements, to the caretaker who needs a flexible schedule to manage their commitments, to the person with a disability who may benefit from assistive technology, by asking every person what their access needs you are able to normalize a culture of mutual support. By doing so regularly, we not only acknowledge the perpetual state of change we all experience but also recognize that individual requirements may shift. This approach normalizes the existence of support structures, eliminating the expectation for individuals to disclose personal details to access necessary accommodations.

Employee Resource Groups

To build upon a culture of mutual support, creating Employee Resource Groups empowers people to cross collaborate and help get each other’s needs met. The sense of community empowers teams to openly address both personal and organization-wide issues, fostering collaboration for effective solutions. These groups have the potential to contribute to policy changes that enhance the overall well-being of your teams. Check out Indeed’s ‘Employee Resource Groups: Your Complete Guide.”

Skills focused

Acknowledging the educational barriers, look at the skills your employees have – not only degrees. While certain roles may necessitate specific education, many do not. Additionally, implementing accessible upskilling programs ensures that team members with disabilities that may not have had equitable access to formal education, have the opportunity to develop and grow with the organization. Focusing on functional skills bridges the gap between education and employment success; acting as a key tool as we strive for equity. 

Representation is essential

Creating an inclusive organizational culture requires individuals to feel not just seen, but acknowledged, valued, and integrated into the fabric of the organization. This is especially crucial for underrepresented groups, emphasizing the importance of representation in leadership, media, and reporting. Actively work towards incorporating individuals with disabilities into your leadership team, and highlighting their contributions based on merit rather than their disability. Never present them as a hero, warrior, or superpower for achieving with a disability – but rather showcase the impact of the work they provide to the organization. 

Showcase the diverse experiences of people with disabilities on your website, moving beyond the context of accessibility. Remember, individuals with disabilities engage in everyday activities such as buying socks and securing car insurance, just like anyone else.

It’s essential to recognize and make space for an intersectional experience. In my experimentation, AI image generators can perpetuate stereotypes, portraying all “autistic people” as unhappy-looking, white, cis-males in their 20s or depicting a “disabled person” as an older white cisgendered individual in a wheelchair. 

Acknowledging that disability intersects with every other underrepresented group is vital. 

Elevating diverse voices and experiences within the disability community paints us a truer picture of the world in which we live.

Breaking down employer barriers

Shifting our perspective is essential; instead of exclusively concentrating on the obstacles individuals with disabilities encounter in securing employment or advancing within an organization, it’s time to recognize the missed opportunities for innovation, problem-solving, and various other valuable contributions. 

Organizations that fail to integrate people with disabilities into their workforce are not just perpetuating exclusion; they are also missing out on a wealth of talent and unique perspectives.

Let’s reframe the narrative to emphasize what companies stand to gain by fostering inclusivity. It’s time to view disclosure not as a mere quota filler but as a strategic advantage that enhances the richness and effectiveness of the entire workforce.

Social constructs, disclosure and pride

Disability is a social construct. It is nuanced and varied. Not everyone facing barriers may identify with the label “disabled.” Being human is complex and self-identifying as disabled is a personal assessment and choice influenced by medical, logistical, and cultural factors. Evolving our perspective, let’s move beyond asking individuals about their bodies or minds and instead inquire about how societal constructs have contributed to their sense of disablement and how we, collectively, can provide support.

  • Encourage continued openness from those who feel safe to disclose.
  • Advocate for ongoing evolution of workplace inclusive practices.
  • Emphasize the recognition of individuals for their whole lived experience, not only their disability.

Our aim is to build a world where individuals with disabilities feel empowered to disclose, contributing to an ongoing movement that normalizes disability in the eyes of society. Recognizing the strength in unity, when individuals are ready to share, we stand prepared to acknowledge, celebrate, and amplify their unique strengths and contributions. There is power in numbers. 

Read more about Donna Bungard, the author of this article, by clicking here.

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