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The Answer to Boring Employee Engagement Surveys? A Disability and Mental Health Town Hall

October 29, 2020
Source: Forbes

Could a company-wide town hall be the answer to connecting remote workers on issues of huge concern? I think so. Take mental health and learning disabilities—two topics that affect more than 20% of Americans every day at work.

During fast-moving crises, most often organizations offer very targeted resources, which makes sense. But the pandemic is different. Now months into this crisis with no clear end in sight, why not go wide? This could be your opportunity to make invisible disabilities visible across your company. Town Hall meetings, if done well, can be thoughtful, interactive virtual community meetings.

Imagine how impactful it would be to demystify and de-stigmatize being autistic, dyslexic or an ADHD-er is like right now for adults in the workplace. This type of forum with disabled people at the center of it would also be a very clear show of strength from people in the disability community. We want others to know that people with disabilities not only want to work, they do work, and many are hiding in plain sight right in your organization.

It’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Typically this is a time to promote hiring people with disabilities. This year, it could be an opportunity for those who do have jobs and are willing to speak candidly to increase opportunity and awareness for others like them. Experts estimate that 20% of people of working age have a learning disability diagnosis, a number that is surprisingly close to the number of people who will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime (25%).

The town hall meeting isn’t new to the corporate world, of course, but with a few tweaks, it could become less formal, more thoughtful and highly focused on connecting peers. I have no doubt that town halls, reinvented to cover difficult topics that need widespread awareness, will prove profoundly helpful in preventing discrimination, bullying and able-ism.

Thought Starters For Leaders

Some companies have already begun and they’ve dubbed their Town Halls inclusive retrospective meetings. The goal of doing one is to:

  • Inform but also surface misunderstandings and bust myths quickly, looping in remote workers from a variety of offices and teams.
  • Surface and resolve questions and build trust quickly. They do caution against overusing them or polls and making them fairly speedy, interactive affairs.
  • Break down a buzz word, such as inclusion, into real, usable information for colleagues.
  • Acknowledge past discrimination. Even 30 years after the U.S. passed one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation—the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the reality is people with disabilities, both visible and invisible, are still experiencing discrimination on a large scale.
  • Aim to help the most people with the least effort. When governments, businesses and schools finally stop resisting inclusion, the benefits extend to many more people than just the disabled. The abled and disabled alike benefit from changing and adapting to diverse needs, explains Kate Brouse, disability advocate at NTI (National Telecommuting Institute).

Thought Starters for Employees

If you are an employee moved by the town hall spirit because you want your company to have a greater understanding of mental health and learning disabilities, congratulations—you are a trailblazer. Few people right now will openly talk about their ADHD or dyslexia, manic depression or chronic anxiety, especially at the top levels. But if not now, when? We need more upstanders. The goal for employees would be to:

  • Promote the idea of inclusion and explain what it means to you For example, explain the motto, “nothing about us without us.”
  • Model an enthusiastic, confident and engaging mindset. Speak from a place of abundance and pride (getting disgruntled or disappointed by others lack of knowledge will quickly bring the meeting down.
  • Show your ambitious side. Some Americans don’t understand that people with disabilities don’t just want to work, they want to train for long-term employment and careers.
  • Ask very direct questions of leaders. Find out before the meeting if your company has assigned a team of experts (including human resources, equal employment opportunity, and procurement professionals) to inclusive hiring. here to find an explanation of these policies.
  • Share your truth. Offer details about everyday life in what is a rare psychologically safe space. You would be surprised at how few people have ever heard someone like you describe for others how you do your best work and why. Painting a human picture of an invisible disability is guaranteed to reduce stigma.

Risks and Accessibility Resources

Town halls aren’t sales meetings — rah-rah events with carefully curated slideshows and themes. This can be raw, difficult information to process quickly. A town hall about mental health and learning disabilities would require that enough employees are willing to speak about their own diagnoses. Bringing in outsiders limits the authenticity of the idea, making me want to call it what it is — a seminar or workshop or guest speaker series.

This revised form of town hall is work, but not of the theme music and slide-show variety. At the center of these virtual events are clear objectives such as learning what people don’t know, or providing experiences and tips in [an] everyday, usable way. This means you must have:

  • An idea of how the conversation will flow and who will take questions during the virtual event. A moderator to help to engage the audience by explaining what types of comments are coming in.
  • Brief, informative materials pre-released to make the topic of the town hall clear.
  • Someone to manage who will answer a question if there is a panel.

Finally, don’t let the excitement and interest in the topic wane after the event. Follow the town meeting with the announcement of a slack channel for further discussion or a centrally located spot for questions divided by topic. Make these link-heavy and easy to use even if you did not attend the session. Resources for finding best practices include Medium’s Remote Community Engagement Guide and The Global Alliance for Disaster Resource Acceleration (GADRA), which is currently helping the global disability movement to share experiences and expertise. This is also a great resource for understanding how to make a town hall fully accessible. One hub of information on communication access and work arrangements is the Office of Disability Employment Policy. Here you can find links to Policy Matters, TalentWorks and the helpful e-newsletter from PEAT. All are worth reviewing even if a town hall is the last thing on your list this year.

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