Dec 10, 2021
The Onus Is On Employers To Drive Disability Awareness and Inclusion. Here’s How.

Today, one in four people in America have a disability. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 18% of them were part of the workforce last year.

We have made significant progress as a society in the 31 years since the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people living with disabilities and aims to ensure everyone has the same rights and opportunities. However, unconscious bias, stigma, and discrimination still exist. As a result, disability is often a risk factor for mental health conditions, which can exacerbate the negative affects a person’s disability has on their overall quality of life.

"Seen and unseen disabilities affect everyone."Dr. Steve Miller, chief clinical officer at Cigna

"Our entire population is touched, in some form, by disability," Dr. Miller continued. "Conversations around disability awareness allow us to have an open dialogue, which is necessary to combat the stigma around disability in America. This is particularly crucial in the workplace, and employers must hold themselves accountable." 

Cigna has long been committed to reducing unconscious bias and stigma around disabilities in the workplace, and to creating an inclusive workplace for those with disabilities. We are proud to have earned a score of 100% on the 2020 Disability Equality Index and for being named a Best Place to Work for Disability Inclusion for the sixth year in a row.

Below we take a look at how and why employers are on the hook to drive disability awareness, equity, and inclusion, and offer advice on how to do so.

Disability Inclusion Is the Responsibility of Employers – Big and Small

Disability awareness and inclusion must be a core value for all organizations, Dr. Miller said.

“In my experience as a leader, if an organization accommodates someone who has a need – they will undoubtedly become one of your best employees,” he said.

In the American workforce, the unemployment rate for people with a disability continues to be much higher than for those without a disability – regardless of education level.  In 2020, 12.6% of Americans with a disability were unemployed and actively looking for work, an increase of over 5% from the previous year.  In contrast, the unemployment rate for people without a disability was 7.9%.

According to research from Accenture, there’s a business case for organizations to actively promote accessibility and inclusion in the workplace. In its recent study of 140 U.S. companies, Accenture found that organizations that champion and support people with disabilities in the workplace outperformed their peers. In fact, the study found that companies that prioritize disability inclusion have 28% higher revenues, 200% higher net income, and 30% higher profit margins. Additionally, the study found that companies that improved their internal practices for disability inclusion were almost four times more likely to see higher total shareholder returns.

Cheryl Wade, senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Cigna, said that conversations around disability and employee storytelling are paramount. They present the opportunity to spotlight the vast contributions that employees with disabilities make every day, which helps build allyship.

At Cigna, for example, our ABLE enterprise resource group (ERG), hosts events to engage all employees, regardless of ability, on crucial topics related to disability awareness. Recent events, meant to encourage an open forum and dialogue, have included sessions on demystifying adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), overcoming catastrophic injury, and navigating mental health stigma and resources. The ABLE ERG also runs ongoing education campaigns and programs to advocate on behalf of disabled employees and raise awareness. According to Wade, these types of forums and programs help to educate Cigna employees.

“We can all actively change by absorbing more information, which will help to create a better, more accommodating workplace for people with disabilities both seen and unseen.”Cheryl Wade, senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Cigna

How the Shift to a Hybrid Workforce Presents Opportunities for Recruiting People Living With Disabilities

Companies have the ability to cast a wider net and recruit a more diverse workforce in a hybrid work environment, Wade said. Along with eliminating geography as a hurdle, hybrid work removes barriers to transportation and other physical obstacles that may discourage a candidate from applying for a role. For example, one survey of people with blindness or low vision revealed that 38% had turned down a job because of transportation concerns.

“If an employee or candidate has already set up their own accommodation – companies now have the flexibility to ask, ‘What else can we do to help you feel more comfortable at our company?’” Wade said.

“When we think about how we operate, connectivity is more important than ever,” she said, adding that from an HR perspective, Cigna is looking at technology that blends the experience for those working from home and those working in the office. She also said that the future of work at Cigna is hybrid, rooted in technology and an employee-centric culture.

Dr. Miller said this represents a fantastic opportunity to actively recruit people with disabilities. “The added responsibility, however, is also on employers to provide people with accommodations specific to this new hybrid model,” he said. For example, employees who have motor disabilities might need technology that assists with typing, while those whose sight is impaired might be more productive with a screen reader.

For companies that may be concerned about the costs of accommodating persons with disabilities, research shows that accommodations or assistive technologies are of minimal cost and are fruitful investments. According to employers participating in a study by Job Accommodation Network, a service from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office, 59% of accommodations cost nothing to make, while the rest typically cost an average of only $500 per employee with a disability. Importantly, the study also found there are many direct benefits to making accommodations. A whopping 90% of employers reported that the accommodations allowed them to retain a valued employee, and 68% reported seeing an increase in the employee’s productivity. 

Careers at Cigna

Diversity at Cigna isn’t just a checkbox on a list. It’s something we value and seek out. Diversity brings us the widest range of opinions, backgrounds, experiences and values. It makes us stronger, and better able to empathize with our customers and their circumstances.

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The Future of Work Must Be Accessibility-Obsessed

Wade said that fostering an inclusive culture for people living with disabilities will mean working with them hand in hand to make meaningful changes and to create accessible employee experiences.

At Cigna, for example, our HR organization has worked closely with our ABLE ERG to make the accommodations process a better experience. While this may sound simple, efforts such as making resources easier to find, improving the ease of submitting and approving accommodations requests, and digitizing forms has made a significant impact. Examples like this benefit everyone, improving the day-to-day tasks of all employees.

Take closed captioning, for example. Based on feedback from employees through ABLE and HR, Cigna has ensured the use of closed captioning for internal and external videos, including employee training modules. Used to help disabled employees interpret video or interactive digital content, closed captioning offers additional flexibility for all employees – who may find it more efficient to read a transcript rather than watch a full-length video.

Web accessibility is also top of mind for Cigna. According to a 2020 study, 98% of the world’s top 1 million websites don’t offer full accessibility based a set of standards outlined in the global Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Another study found over 815,000 accessibility compliance issues among Fortune 100 companies. This can hinder a disabled employee’s ability to perform their job, particularly in an increasingly hybrid and digital work environment.

For both employees and customers, Cigna’s digital properties conform to a high level of accessibility standards, combatting the most common barriers for disabled users – ensuring digital access for those with blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, or photosensitivity. Examples include ensuring text readability, screen reader compatibility, clear labels and visual cues, descriptive language, and support for keyboard-only navigation.

COVID-19, Behavioral Health and the “Unseen” Disability

Dr. Miller touched on behavioral health issues, which have affected an increasing number of people due to the pandemic. Behavioral health, and mental health specifically, is an “unseen” disability, he said. That’s why Cigna has done significant work to make mental health resources readily available to our employees and customers through virtual care options and expanded partnerships and tools, but the truth is that people still may be afraid to ask for help.

“One of the things we have to do as a community, and as leaders, is to empower people to reach out if they’re struggling,” Dr. Miller said. “You can have all the great technology you want, but if people don’t feel comfortable reaching out for help – it doesn’t accomplish anything. I’ve been in the workforce long enough to remember a time before basic accommodations for accessibility or impairment. As a society, we’ve come a very long way, both physically and culturally, and I am optimistic about the future.”

However, Dr. Miller identifies a silver lining that has emerged from the pandemic: A sharpened focus on empathy and the mental health of employees. At Cigna, we’ve ensured that managers take a moment to lean in with their employees and ask, “How are you feeling? What can we do to help?” This aligns perfectly with accommodations. “If employees are having a mental health crisis or simply just need something to improve their day-to-day, we provide the resources to better support them,” he said.

One important part of the conversation, Dr. Miller said, is directly related to stigma: the importance of self-identification. At Cigna, we encourage everyone with a disability to self-identify so we can create programs and resources that resonate with their needs.

“We know that the number is higher in our workforce, but many employees haven’t let us know,” Dr. Miller said. “There’s an opportunity to evolve to a place where everyone feels comfortable self-identifying, and we can proactively reach out and help employees be most successful in their work.”

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Cigna

Our inclusive culture allows us to look at problems differently, and makes Cigna a more innovative and stronger partner for our clients and customers. Among our stakeholders, including more than 70,000 employees, many different cultures, beliefs, and values are represented. We take great pride in our diverse and talented workforce, which spans five generations.

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