Balancing Our Say/Do Ratio: Inclusive Cultures Require Continuous Learning and Action

December 3, 2021 | Diversity & Inclusion | 8 min read

“After I left school, I applied for thousands and thousands of jobs, but nobody wanted to know about my disability. It made me feel flat, excluded, and depressed. I was not a priority. People with intellectual disabilities are typically at the bottom of the list of hiring priorities, which results in too many people being forgotten and left out. The entire company needs to be consciously inclusive, to enable and facilitate inclusion at an individual level.”

This is the story of Ian Harper, Special Olympics Great Britain athlete and Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger. His story reflects the experience of so many who identify as having intellectual and developmental disabilities, a community sadly underrepresented in today’s workforce.

Like Learning and Development, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)—for individuals and organizations—is a lifelong journey. There is no single workshop or training that can cure inherent biases or assumptions. Instead, true behavior change occurs only when we are personally committed to action, when we are motivated extrinsically and intrinsically to evolve the way we behave. 

Every individual and company are at a different place in their journey. At Skillsoft, we are at the point in our journey where we are building an authentic culture of inclusion. One that moves past both awareness and assessment, and transitions into action – one that is less performative and more intentional in balancing what we say with what we do. We know that creating an inclusive work environment requires all team members to be curious, to have a mindset of continuous growth and development. But inclusion does not stop with learning and awareness. True inclusion is a commitment to action – a commitment to acquiring, developing, and advancing talent in our organizations without exceptions.

Through Skillsoft’s partnership with Special Olympics, we have learned that too often, individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are left out of the corporate DEI conversation. In fact, data from Skillsoft’s 2020 Intellectual Disabilities in Workplace DEIsurvey found that despite surging support for creating truly inclusive workplaces, workplace DEI efforts may often fail to include people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We recognize that this is new territory for many organizations, ourselves included, and we are privileged to learn first-hand through Special Olympics the value individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities bring to the workforce, to teams, and to business growth.

Today, on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we are thrilled to share our learnings from the Special Olympics team, and we hope these insights provide value, wherever you or your organization are on your DEI journey. Beyond the learnings outlined below, Skillsoft has developed two new courses featuring Special Olympics athletes, employees, board members, and partners who share compelling stories of how they fought for, and shaped, a welcoming workplace.

As we worked hand-in-hand with Special Olympics to build this curriculum and produce both courses, we listened and learned. Our collaboration has helped us shape four key perspectives essential to building a truly inclusive workplace. Hiring diverse talent is the first step, but the key to our long-term success is retaining and advancing diverse talent in ways that are scalable and sustainable. We can do this by:

Democratizing and socializing the learning experience

The greatest way to build awareness and craft a blueprint that enables action is to invite and enable self-assessment and storytelling. Each person is unique and different, and the same goes for their experiences in the workplace and beyond. From our work with Special Olympics, we learned the importance of democratizing perspectives to build open and inclusive learning channels, in addition to shining a light on the experiences of underrepresented groups by creating safe spaces for storytelling. Stories create connection; they inspire; and they shift perspectives. When we listen, we learn. After a year and half of disruption and evolving work environments, now is the time for us to pause, listen, connect, and use what we learn to reshape and transform our cultures.

As a part of that commitment, we have established our own Inclusion Council that’s dedicated to building broader DEI learning experiences in the organization. This, combined with the launch of our Employee Advisory Groups, including one for People with Disabilities and Neurodiversity, ensures that we steward this important work in our own organization, provide a platform for and invest in our team members to learn this work and share their stories, and be more intentional with creating a balance between what we say and what we do.  

Removing barriers and simplifying the complex

Emanuelle Dutra Fernandes de Souza, Special Olympics Brazil athlete and Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, shares her experience of facing specific barriers in the workplace.

“People with intellectual disabilities face barriers every day in many different situations, and getting a job is no different. I have faced barriers in the workplace such as being tired of doing only one task every day. That was exhausting mentally and physically. I couldn't tell anyone about this [because I might] have been seen as a person that wasn't helping my colleagues, even if I was getting copies from the printer across the street from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. every day.”

From Emanuelle’s story, we see firsthand that many talent recruitment and enablement practices such as internal talent job transfers, growth opportunities, stretch assignments, and new projects are not universally applied and often times are hard to obtain.

Another athlete from Special Olympics Great Britain, Kiera Byland, shared her perspective on questions inclusive leaders should ask themselves, “Do you know the finer details of your staff members? How to get the best out of them? Imagine I’m like a big ball of wool; and I’m inside with lots of creative ideas. You just have to unravel me and see what comes out. And that is when inclusive leadership becomes real, and it works. To summarize, yes, it’s great to see the bigger picture. Give enough time to listen to hear, process, and act upon, and don’t forget—it’s about the finer details.”

What a powerful statement. As leaders, as colleagues we all play a role in not only “unraveling” the creativity that lives in all of us, but strategically weaving these underrepresented threads into the fabric of our business. Start with getting to know your colleagues – listening in interviews, allowing them to identify their abilities, creating safe spaces for sharing, and then fully rebuilding processes and new ways of working to be more inclusive of diverse abilities.

Focusing on conscious Inclusion and actively seeking feedback

Many organizations have great intentions of adopting a truly inclusive work environment but may be unsure or afraid to start that process. As athlete Ian Harper continued, "Why do company leaders hold back from looking at employing people with intellectual disabilities? Well, because they don't want to be tokenistic. They know that nobody really likes to be a diversity check-the-box hire. "

Our intentions do not often match the impact we want to have. There is a fine line between empowerment and tokenism, but the one way to ensure empowerment first and only is through “conscious inclusion.” Conscious inclusion requires we actively seek feedback and consciously strive to improve how we embrace difference and chose inclusion. Inclusion is active. It is a choice.

As Ian said, "I do not get offended when asked about my disability and what works for me. If asked, I will happily support you and remind you when you slip into your habitual exclusive behaviors, holding you accountable in a friendly way. Of course, seeing people as individuals as they are, whether they have a different skin color or disability. Inclusion at the company level—conscious inclusion needs to also be happening at a company level.”

Knowing when to act and when to press pause

A vital part of inclusion that ties into storytelling is knowing when to act and when to press pause. It is in those moments of pause and reflection – when we truly listen, observe, ask questions, and reflect that we can move forward with renewed purpose and strength. For many of us, we have the desire and energy to move the needle, but often we are driven by our own perspectives and our own sense of what are the “right” things to do. Our journey towards genuinely inclusive cultures is not a sprint. It is a marathon, where the runners who perform best are those who have trained longest, who are the most patient and resilient, and who have the most supporters in their network. We must find that balance between running ahead, running behind, and running beside each other.

We have learned so much through our partnership with Special Olympics. We welcome you to do the same and watch these courses, “Embracing the Power of Diversity and Inclusion featuring Special Olympics” and “Great Leaders Must Be Inclusive featuring Special Olympics” launching today on Percipio, and next week on Skillsoft’s DEI resources page and Skillsoft’s YouTube channel.

Our hope is that these courses will provide a better understanding of the disparities faced by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and share guidance on how organizations and individuals can create more inclusive cultures for people of all abilities. And most importantly, we hope that other organizations can take that pivotal step towards action in their own DEI journeys. A journey that we are all continuously striving for and building to create inclusive employee experiences without exceptions.