In recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, MDI recently hosted a virtual panel that brought together visionary employers and a state agency commissioner to discuss the many meaningful ways Minnesota companies and organizations can advance employment opportunities for people with disabilities in today’s competitive talent market.

From exploring how leaders can make their companies more inclusive to advice on supporting employees with disabilities, our hour-long conversation flew by as panel participants – MDI’s own President and CEO Eric Black, Boston Scientific’s Lead Production Supervisor Paul Dymit, Finley’s Barkery co-founders Angie Gallus and Kyle Gallus, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove, Mayo Clinic Diversity Recruitment Specialist Dawn Kirchner, Mind Shift President Joy Kieffer, and Optum Assistant Vice President of Sales and Account Manager Mike Wall – shared their own experiences and best practices.

You can be a good advocate no matter the size of your company or organization. Paul Dymit reminded us that, “If you’re not making an effort, then [the change is] not going to happen… it really just takes a person or two to be champions and believe in what it takes, and then look around to see where the opportunities are.”

Here are our other top takeaways from the panel:

The benefits to employing people with disabilities are huge.

The panelists overwhelmingly agreed that oftentimes, employers mistakenly overlook the myriad of benefits that come with employing a person who has a disability.

“We [people] are woefully inadequate at judging a person and having a clear picture of what their skills and capabilities are,” said Joy Kieffer. “I look at ‘what do I think about this person,’ and is my thinking accurate? If it isn’t accurate, how do I … interact with them in a way that is more accurate? How do I listen to people to really hear what they have to say and not overlay that with my biases?”

Commissioner Grove echoed this sentiment, stating that for many employers, it can be easy to focus on the disability of a person instead of the full scope of their abilities. He challenges employers to change their thinking.

“If you’re someone who has lived with a disability your whole life, you have to bring a whole other set of superpowers that those of us who might not have a disability don’t possess. If you’re a person with a disability, you’re a natural problem-solver – you have to figure out how to make it around this world with your disability and learn how to be creative and a problem-solver… those are huge superpowers in a work force.”

Eric Black noted how in his experience, people with disabilities are equally as productive as their colleagues without a disability and provide phenomenal quality to their roles. He also pushed back on the narrative that providing additional accommodations to employees is burdensome.

“I’ve found that not to be the case. I’ve found that they’re [accommodations] minimal in nature – is it around time and schedule, it is around transportation? The benefits we’ve seen from having an inclusive work environment with people with disabilities have had multiple impacts. Ultimately, accommodations are minimal. They’re not really these huge barriers we think about.”

When you think about diversity, equity and inclusion, do not forget about individuals with disabilities.

These days, many leaders across industries are having frequent conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and how they can make their workplaces more welcoming.

Panel participants cautioned to not forget about including people with disabilities in conversations around DEI. Dawn Kirchner noted the importance of inclusivity for people with disabilities in physical spaces, systems and even language choices.

“Think about the … design in your spaces and systems … how can they be more universal? People come to us with strengths, but so many times our application systems are screening them out instead of looking at the skills they’re bringing to the job. How can we make that job description more inclusive to attract all types of talent?”

Commissioner Grove summarized it well by adding how leaders at DEED talk about DEI more so as DEI + A – diversity, equity, inclusion + accessibility.

Ensure those most impacted by your decisions have a seat at the table.

When it comes to making positive change that is inclusive of all abilities, Kyle Gallus stressed how at the end of the day, you just have to start and be okay with it not being a perfect journey.

“What’s most important is that you have [full] representation at the table with any decisions you make. If you’re having a discussion on – ‘hey, this is what we’re thinking of doing’ – do you have all the right stakeholders? Those stakeholders are the ones you want to serve … if you don’t have the right representation, get the right representation.”

Angie Gallus agreed, adding the importance of making people feel valued. “Everyone seems to assume that they know what everyone needs …. [when you have] somebody with a disability at the table – ask them what they need. They want to share their experiences with you.”

Mike Wall noted how a leader can only fully understand the needs of a person with disabilities when they “look at the intersection of disability, race and gender … and bring them in to be a part of the planning process. They have the lived experience, so they can help solve these issues.”

MDI’s Creating Inclusive Workplaces in a Competitive Talent Market panel covered even more than these three top takeaways – check out the full conversation here.