Let’s face it—employees living with disabilities have unmet needs at work. While small businesses can offer an environment where employees with disabilities can thrive, owners might think it’s harder than it actually is.

I identify as a member of this community, and that’s why I want to correct some of the misconceptions around hiring people with disabilities and help business owners understand how impactful—and easy—it can be to make their businesses accessible to employees with disabilities.

What is disability?

As defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a person qualifies as having a disability if they are considered to have:

A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

When many people think of disability, they automatically picture someone who is blind or in a wheelchair, but the community encompasses so much more than that. A disability can be visible or invisible, meaning it’s not immediately apparent—like mine. Disabilities can also be permanent or temporary.

Over one in 10 Americans identify as having a disability, and the unemployment rate for this group is 10.5 percent, more than double the national rate.

The important thing to remember is that disabilities don’t have to be viewed as limitations.

If we stop thinking about disability as a medical condition and instead think of accessibility as removing structural or environmental barriers that interfere with anyone’s ability to do a job, perspectives can change.

For example, say an employee has dwarfism and works at a restaurant as a server. Until the restaurant decided to only have high-top tables, this employee wouldn’t necessarily have identified as someone with a disability.

Why you should care about making your business accessible

Businesses need people with the ability to adapt to different situations and circumstances. People with disabilities possess precisely these attributes.

On a daily basis, they must think creatively about how to solve problems and accomplish tasks. In the workplace, this can translate into innovative thinking, fresh ideas, and varied approaches to confronting challenges and achieving success.

Beyond that, here are a few things to consider:

Having an accessible business opens the door to more customers

People with disabilities globally control $8 trillion in disposable income. Together with their friends and family, they represent 53 percent of global consumers. It’s important for businesses open to the public to have a workforce that reflects their customers and community.

Disabilities can happen at any time

Making sure your business is accessible from the beginning allows those who incur a disability to stay committed to your business, saving you turnover costs and time.

Accessible businesses can get a tax break

You can receive different tax benefits by employing people with disabilities or removing any barriers to your physical business, like the:

When your business grows, accessibility becomes a legal requirement

The ADA requires all employers with 15 or more employees to make reasonable accommodations for interviewing, hiring, and retaining employees with disabilities. Making these small changes now can save you time and money—and make your company more attractive to employees with and without disabilities—as your business grows.

Many accommodations aren’t expensive

Two out of three accommodations cost less than $500, and almost a quarter of them will cost you nothing at all.

For example, I live with mental health issues, and my boss lets me work from home one day a week as this is something that helps me stay healthy. This is no cost to the company and allows me to do my best work.

Some employees even provide their own accommodations in the form of assistive devices or equipment. And advances in technology continue to bring the cost of accommodations down year after year.

4 free ways to make your small business more accessible

Now that it’s clear why including people with disabilities is important for your business, let’s help you understand how you can actually do this.

1. Educate your employees on disability etiquette

Employees with disabilities face numerous biases about their competence, productivity, and social skills.

I’ve found these biases often stem from feelings of fear or discomfort from colleagues who have had limited, if any, interaction with people with disabilities.

It’s common to fear the unknown, but a little education about how to foster an inclusive workplace can go a long way toward helping all members of your team feel comfortable. A few ideas:

  • Encourage your team to use people-first language. Rather than “disabled,” say “people with disabilities,” or rather than “wheelchair-bound,” say someone “uses a wheelchair.”
  • Establish meeting etiquette that is respectful of several different lifestyles. For example, early morning meetings or last-minute changes may be difficult for someone who uses a wheelchair and needs extra time to travel.
  • Teach your team how to spot and treat service animals. It’s not always apparent that my dog Finnley is a service animal, and I’ve had to explain or defend keeping her with me to other employees, which felt extremely demoralizing. In many cases, it’s also best to ask before petting an animal on duty.

2. Create accessible hiring processes

Give everyone equal opportunity to work at your business. Make sure there are no barriers in your process that could limit someone’s ability to apply.

For example, if your application process is online, is it compatible with a screen reader (aka an app that helps people with visual impairments read text more easily)? Is your interview site accessible? If you have concerns, your best bet is to partner with someone who’s engaged in serving people with disabilities and have them go through your application flow.

When hiring, focus on what candidates can do at work, rather than what they can’t.

3. Create a two-way accommodation process

You and your employee should work together to find the best solution. As we discussed earlier, accommodations are often low cost or no cost at all.

Here is a six-step framework you can use:

Step 1: Recognize when a request is being made

Employees aren’t required to specifically state they are making a formal request. So if an employee is making an ask related to a medical condition—like “I need to shift my start time because of medical treatments I’m undergoing”—you can assume it’s a request. If you aren’t sure, just ask! But be sure to act quickly, as delays can result in violating the ADA and affecting employees’ job performance.

Step 2: Gather details from your employee so you can explore options

What you need to know are the limitations interfering with your employee’s job performance and what specific work tasks are being inhibited. If the limitations aren’t obvious, ask the employee directly. You can also ask employees with disabilities to confidentially self-identify so you can suggest ways to improve accessibility.

Step 3: Explore the different accommodation options with your employee

Be sure to keep an open mind on accommodations that might not seem useful to you. A best practice is to invite your employee to suggest accommodations.

Step 4: Choose the accommodation

If there’s more than one option, you can pick the lowest cost accommodation that’s still effective.

We all like to have some say in the way we do our work and the equipment we use, and when you give your employees a say, they’re often happier and more productive in their work. So while the ADA doesn’t require employers to give employees the exact accommodation they request, it can make a big difference to your employee to do so when feasible.

Pro tip: You aren’t locked into an accommodation if it doesn’t work. Consider a trial period.

Step 5: Implement your chosen accommodation

Once you’ve settled on the best accommodation, make sure you and your team take all necessary steps to ensure any parties involved are properly trained on how to use it.

There are ADA confidentiality rules, so only let managers and supervisors know about the necessary accommodation.

Step 6: Continue to monitor the accommodation

The best way to ensure the accommodation is still having the highest impact is to hear it directly from your employee! Maintain an ongoing communication and check-in system with them, like a monthly meeting or an email thread where they can raise issues. This will not only make sure they are able to perform best at their job, but it helps them feel like they’re in the driver’s seat.

4. Make sure your business stays compliant

Keep your business up to date on all Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) regulations. Understanding how customers arrive at and move through your business can help you identify existing barriers and set priorities for their removal. Consider the following:

  • Do people arrive on foot, by car, or by public transportation?
  • Do you provide parking?
  • How do customers physically enter and move about your business?

Best rule of thumb? Ask yourself who could be excluded. Whether it’s organizing a team offsite or redesigning your restaurant, if you ask yourself and your employees who could be left out, you’d be surprised how much more inclusive your initiatives become.

Similar to sex, race, and ethnicity, a disability isn’t something you choose, but it’s a part of you—and it’s a part that makes you unique.

As best said by Barack Obama in the Presidential Proclamation of National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October 2016:

“When we diversify our workforce, we create opportunities for growth and improvement—not just for those with disabilities, but for everyone…”

Barack Obama
44th President of the United States
Lea Engelhardt Lea Engelhardt is on the People team at Gusto. She started when the company had just 25 employees and has watched it grow to over 800. She's had a big hand in scaling Gusto's culture and inclusion initiatives.
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