Nearly 20 million people of working age live with a disability in the US, according to Census data, while the unemployment rate among this demographic is about three times the national average. Recent research suggests that a lack of adaptive clothing suited to a professional environment may play a role in the underemployment of persons with disabilities. Kerri McBee-Black and Jung Ha-Brookshire, from the University of Missouri’s department of textile and apparel management, analyzed the professional experiences of 12 people with either physical or psychological disabilities to see what impact workplace dress codes had on their experiences in the job market. As they discovered, these rules can seriously limit their employability.
Just a few retailers, such as Izzy Camilleri or Silvert’s, specialize in adaptive clothing, which might include snaps or magnets instead of buttons, for example, or accommodate the specific needs of wheelchair users. Even fewer mainstream apparel brands, such as Target and Tommy Hilfiger, produce lines of adaptive clothing. Professional attire for people with disabilities is particularly limited, expensive, and hard to find. This lack of availability creates obstacles when trying to fit into a corporate work environment, of which people without disabilities may not be cognizant. These obstacles keep some people with disabilities out of the workforce entirely, or discourage them from pursuing careers for which they are highly qualified, McBee-Black said in an interview last month with Nadra Nittle at Racked:
One particular young woman who used a wheelchair and has a college degree and experience in the banking industry did not feel comfortable applying for a job in the bank when she graduated. She said, “I knew they had a specific dress code and that dress code would make it hard to use the restroom without assistance from others.” She was independent in every other aspect of her life but that, so she never once considered applying for a job at the bank.
It is imperative, McBee-Black argues, that more clothing retailers market adaptive clothing appropriate for the professional environment. Employers also have an important role, however, in ensuring that they are not inadvertently creating unwelcoming work environments for people with disabilities. Here are a few steps organizations can take to make their workplaces more disability-friendly:
- Review policies: Many apparently innocuous workplace policies, including but not limited to dress codes, result in people with disabilities self-selecting out of jobs. Consider reviewing and, if necessary, updating these policies with a focus on ensuring that they are fair to employees with disabilities.
- Make job applications and interviews inclusive: When organizations clearly communicate on job advertisements and applications that a role is inclusive and accessible (addressing specific anxieties like the dress code), candidates with disabilities will be more likely to apply. Some organizations are even creating more flexible recruiting processes, such as virtual interviews, to make these candidates feel more comfortable.
- Relax dress codes where appropriate: Many organizations have already changed their dress codes to promote a more inclusive work environment, communicating that what an employee wears is not the measure of success at their company. Not only does this help employees with disabilities, it also sets the tone for other employees who may feel constrained by a restrictive dress code, without singling out specific groups.
- Enable flexible work arrangements: Disabilities can sometimes prevent employees from being physically present in the office. In our research at CEB, now Gartner, we see that employees with disabilities are 8 percent more likely than others to apply for opportunities that offer better flexibility, such as remote work. This is also an option that all employees value, so organizations can offer it as a way to accommodate disability and boost employee engagement at the same time. This, too, is something employers can do without singling anyone out.