People with disabilities are among the most impacted by the global pandemic — a situation that has further amplified existing healthcare and employment challenges faced by this community. Our commitment to people with disabilities is more critical than ever, both as a benefits provider protecting people who become unable to work due to injury or illness and as a leading employer focused on disability inclusion and hiring practices.
In observance of International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3, a date proclaimed by the United Nations to promote the rights and wellbeing of persons with disabilities, we asked Aaron West, IT product owner and enABLE co-lead, and Donna DiBenedetto, customer experience specialist, to share their perspectives and to touch on this year’s theme: Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world.
“Disability inclusion can take on so many different forms, especially for someone like me with visible and invisible disabilities,” says DiBenedetto. “It’s important to celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities to create awareness and understanding around disabilities, as well as to create an environment for all of us to succeed.”
This year’s theme calls on organizations to use experiences and best practices learned during the pandemic to break down barriers and build a more inclusive and resourceful recovery and post-Covid world for the disability community.
West notes how mental health has been highlighted as a priority as a result of the pandemic. “We’ve learned these challenges are not confined to the disabled population. They apply to everyone. When I was completely disabled, I was mostly confined to the home and endured that experience. Others who have struggled during the pandemic can now relate, which has helped foster a more supportive workplace culture.”
At Colonial Life, each employee’s unique perspective, experience and background equips them to thrive in the workplace and be fully representative of the communities and people Colonial Life serves — something that DiBenedetto can personally attest to.
“With my own experiences, I’ve learned to use everything possible to understand a person,” says DiBenedetto. “I believe we put too much emphasis on what people look like and the words they say. Instead, I look for a person’s strong points and consider who brings what to the table when planning collaborative projects.”
“My disability experience has been transformational in terms of my development as a leader,” says West. “For example, a good leader needs strong emotional intelligence and the ability to receive and act on constructive feedback. Prior to the disability, it was more challenging to receive that feedback and become more self-aware, simply because seeing yourself through another person’s eyes can be unpleasant. It has strengthened the way I build and develop inclusive relationships and has helped me encourage my peers that feedback is welcome.”
Earlier this year, Unum and Colonial Life’s Inclusion & Diversity team developed a new structure with four Employee Networks (ENs), including enABLE, which is open to all employees with the desire to enable the organization to be inclusive of people with disabilities, build community and network, and share their experiences with the company.
“I’m proud of the work this company is doing daily to create a more inclusive environment for visible and invisible disabilities. Creating opportunities for employees to share their perspectives about which efforts will accelerate this work, while also understanding what may be a constraint, is important,” DiBenedetto says.
Efforts as a leader in disability inclusion in the workforce have not gone unnoticed. Unum was named a 2021 Leading Disability Employer by the National Organization on Disability (NOD) for the second year in a row. The organization also received the Best Places to Work for Disability Inclusion recognition, scoring 100% on the Disability Equality Index®.
“I’m proud we’re consistently recognized which shows we’re on the right track,” says West. “This doesn’t mean our job is done. There are endless opportunities for us to grow in how we include our employees and tap into that experience. It is extremely fulfilling not just to get the recognition, but also to see consistent improvement.”