The Small Business at Work Toolkit

Helping small businesses welcome employees with disabilities
A man with a prosthetic leg talks with two other men in a warehouse.


Why workplace inclusion matters

What is inclusion?

Diversity and inclusion are big buzzwords in business right now. But what does inclusion mean to a small business? In an earlier tool, we mentioned that people with disabilities are a part of every community. People with disabilities are not only your customers, but also your applicants and employees. Inclusion means that everyone is welcomed into your community and your business. Everyone is valued for their current and potential future contributions to both the community and the business.

“Team performance improves by 50% when everyone feels included.” 
—Accenture, 2020

Why inclusion matters to small businesses

Three office workers look at a laptop screen.In study after study, large and small businesses who have a work culture based on including all people and focus on building trust are more likely than others to be successful.[1] As a small business, you might not have dedicated staff for inclusion or diversity or even human resources. But you can still strive to create a workplace where all workers feel that their contribution matters, their voice can be heard, they can learn from co-workers, and they can trust others at work. Creating this culture might be one of the most important things you can do to make your small business successful.

Inclusion and small business success

Why has the research so consistently shown that inclusion matters for the success of large and small businesses?[2]

  • Workers learn to perform more effectively.[3] Seventy percent of what we need[4] to learn to be great performers at work is learned informally—by talking to co-workers and making mistakes, as well as by getting feedback and coaching. This learning is most likely to happen in a climate of trust and connection.
  • Teams function better. When teams are built on trust, conflicts are less likely to derail team functioning. When everyone’s voice matters, teams reach better decisions.
  • Workers have less stress when there is a climate of support among co-workers.[5]
  • Workers are less likely to leave their jobs when there is a climate of trust and support. And for many small businesses, getting and keeping good workers makes or breaks their success.

What’s it really like to work here?

For cheerful workers stand in a warehouse, in front of shelving holding rolls of items that may be carpeting Inclusion isn’t just about formal pronouncements and slogans. Rather, inclusion plays out during everyday life in the workplace:

  • Whose voice is taken seriously?
  • Who’s invited to gatherings?
  • Whose mistakes or infractions are tolerated and whose aren’t?
  • What conduct is rewarded?
  • What conduct is shunned?

As a small business leader, you can’t control every conversation between employees. But you can set a tone that enables a workplace climate where inclusion is expected. Though formal pronouncements are a start, they will not be enough. Workers pay more attention to what you do—to what actually happens on a daily basis—than to formal statements.

Start with these questions:

  • What’s it really like to work here?
  • What is truly important to us as we do our jobs?

How your workers answer these questions will be the real test of whether your workplace is inclusive.

Inclusion and disability

Comprising about 20% of the US population, people with disabilities are one of the largest diverse talent pools in our country. Yet, they are often not fully included in the everyday culture of the workplace. What does exclusion look like for workers with disabilities? Consider the following statements made by people with disabilities:

“I wasn’t invited to most meetings, even though others in my role were.”

“I couldn’t go to the office holiday party because it was held in an inaccessible location.”

“They seem to just feel sorry for me and not treat me as an equal.”

“I was denied a slight change in schedule as an accommodation for my disability. But they allowed another guy to have a major change in his schedule so he could train for a marathon.”

“I didn’t know about important aspects of our project because they were discussed after work over beer and I wasn’t invited.”

“I never got feedback or coaching from my boss. Everybody else got tips and ideas to help them in their jobs. But I was just out of the loop.”

“I overheard a supervisor saying they wouldn’t hire the most qualified applicant because customers would be uncomfortable with somebody in a wheelchair.”

Sometimes, these oversights can clearly say to a person that they are not welcome, that their contributions are not valued, and that they are “other.” In a small business, excluding people in your workplace can mean that you lose valuable talent or that people don’t live up to their potential to make your business better.

Taking action: Send the right message

Let all your employees and your community know that disability inclusion is key to the success of your small business. Send the message that inclusion is about business, not about pity or charity. It’s about having access to qualified applicants and new employees. It’s about performing at our best in the workplace. It’s about retaining employees. And, yes, it is about doing the right thing. Set the expectation that workers with disabilities are seen as full and valued members of your workforce, whether or not they are working with an accommodation.

Taking action: Acknowledge unconscious bias

Two people stand behind the counter at a coffee shopWhen workers with disabilities are excluded, it’s often not because co-workers have cruel intentions.[6] Usually, it’s because co-workers make automatic assumptions about people with disabilities or are vaguely uncomfortable with interacting with someone who is different.

A first step in overcoming these hidden attitudes is to acknowledge them. Then, provide a safe environment where these attitudes can be challenged. Finally, remember that opportunities to interact with people with disabilities provide a powerful way to overcome these hidden attitudes.

Taking action: Look at your diversity efforts

People with disabilities are arguably the largest diversity population in our country. Yet, many diversity plans for small businesses do not meaningfully include disability as a category. This can affect your business. Your small business could be losing out on an important new source of talent and could be failing to fully leverage the talent you do have.

Taking action: Consider disability awareness training

Disability awareness training for supervisors and staff need not be expensive or time-consuming. It can often be done online and provided by an agency in your community. To find out more about your options, contact your regional ADA Center at 800-949-4232.

Taking action: Build community

Two women work together in a cafe to clear dishes off a tableEncouraging community building within your business is an important part of making all employees feel like they belong. Think about what might work in your business. Talk to your employees about how they would like to feel supported to do their job well.

Two possibilities for encouraging connections are assigning a mentor or buddy to new employees and starting a disability-themed employee resource group.


[1] Mann, A. (2018). Why we need best friends at work. Gallup.

[2] American Association of People with Disabilities & Disability:IN. (2018). Getting to equal 2018: The disability inclusion advantage (PDF). Accenture.

[3] Axios HR. (2018). Why diversity & inclusion is vital to small business success.

[4] Segers, M., Dochy, F. & Messmann, G. (2017). Informal Learning at Work: Triggers, Antecedents, and Consequences. Routledge.

[5] Anthony-McMann, P., Ellinger, A., Astakhova, M., & Halbesleben, J. (2016). Exploring different operationalizations of employee engagement and their relationships with workplace stress and burnout. Human Resource Development Quarterly.

[6] ABA Commission on Disability Rights. (2019). Implicit biases & people with disabilities. American Bar Association.