Over the past few years, there has been a lot more discussion about inclusion in the workplace. However, an aspect of this that is often overlooked is how businesses can be inclusive on individuals with disabilities. While the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, it’s not always clear what that looks like in practice. In addition to what’s legally required, what best practices can businesses utilize to make the workplace more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? To answer this question, we are talking to business leaders who have unique insights on “How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Have a Disability.” As part of our series, we were delighted to interview Bryon Bass.

Bryon Bass, CLMS is the Chief Executive Officer of the Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC). As a Certified Leave Management Specialist with more than 20 years of experience in the absence and disability management industry, he is an expert on integrated absence and disability management program strategy, innovation, and compliance.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are? 

Sure. For the past 25 years, I’ve been working in the field of absence and disability management. Not everyone is familiar with that space, but it’s an important segment of the human resources field focused on building more inclusive, productive workplaces while minimizing the effects of lost work time. Absence and disability management professionals are the people who have to stay apprised of federal, state, and local regulations around workplace leave, and then implement compliant and inclusive absence management programs that serve both their workers and their own organizations. It’s a daunting and everchanging landscape, so my recent life’s passion has been to educate these practitioners and help advance the profession. 

Currently, I’m the CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, or DMEC, which is the only association of its kind. We offer absence and disability management professionals a one-stop-shop for valuable tools, timely resources, and interactive knowledge-sharing opportunities. I formally became CEO in 2023, but I’ve been involved with DMEC since its inception. I joined as a member in 1996 and have served on both the DMEC Executive Advisory Board and DMEC Employer Advisory Council. Previously, I was the director of integrated disability management at Pacific Gas and Electric and then served as senior vice president and workforce absence and disability practice leader for Sedgwick where I led the strategy, innovation, and compliance efforts for disability absence management products. 

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Picking just three is challenging, but I would say being empathetic, understanding, and passionate are my top three. In my experience, empathy is one of the most powerful characteristics of organizational leaders. I strive to incorporate empathy into everything I do, whether it be scheduling time to chat with my employees in a safe space or infusing empathetic messages into the work we do for our members.

Related to this is understanding. As the head of an HR-related membership organization, I’m in the somewhat unique position of being an employer while also serving employers. So, I try to bring that perspective and level of personal understanding to everything we offer DMEC members. We “meet people where they are” with tools and services tailored to their needs, and we bring an understanding of what our members are facing to everything we do. 

And then there’s passion. I know that I cannot effect change or make an impact on others without bringing passion to the job. I truly believe in the value of the professionals we serve and feel passionate about empowering organizations to be better employers by building a culture of inclusive workplace practices. 

Can you share a story about one of your greatest work related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it? 

One particular instance comes to mind—the first time I was responsible for identifying a reasonable accommodation for an employee who acquired a disability after a work-related injury. This story is deeply personal and pivotal to my professional journey, underscoring the critical importance of workplace accommodation and inclusivity.

This employee dedicated 15 years to predominantly physical work in a manufacturing facility. After her injury, she lost significant mobility in her wrists; she could no longer type for more than 10 minutes within a given hour or lift items more than 10 pounds—essential functions of her job. Given these constraints, continuing her role in the manufacturing environment was impossible.

This was the mid-90s, a time when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was still in its early days, and assistive technology was not as advanced or widely available as it is today. We transferred her to the payroll department, thinking a role as a petty cash clerk would be a potential fit. We quickly realized that this position required up to 20 minutes of typing per hour, extensive use of a computer mouse, and hand movements required to count cash exceeded her physical abilities.

Refusing to give up, I embarked on an extensive search for assistive technologies that could bridge the gap between the employee’s capabilities and the job’s requirements. I discovered Dragon Dictate, a pioneering voice-to-text software, and a foot-controlled mouse. Additionally, her healthcare provider confirmed that counting cash would not exacerbate her condition.  

Armed with these solutions that remediated all logistical and functional concerns, I was faced with perhaps the greatest challenge: convincing the leadership team, who were still resistant to these changes. I leverage my negotiation skills and appealed to our shared corporate values of mutual respect and collaborative problem-solving. I argued that our duty was greater than complying with the ADA, it was about living up to our company’s defining values.

For me, this experience was transformative. Yes, we facilitated a valuable team member’s continued contribution to our company, but the process to do so ignited my passion for inclusion and disability management. I realized the profound role empathy, innovation, and resilience play in overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. This journey defined my path in the disability and absence management field and underscored the undeniable truth that creating an inclusive and welcoming space is not just beneficial for those who directly require accommodations, it enriches our entire professional community.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am always excited to share projects that promote opportunities for employers to go above and beyond compliance requirements and adopt forward-thinking and inclusive benefits and policies. DMEC’s microcredential courses do just that. Employers who take these courses tell us that they feel more equipped to recruit and retain diverse employees, while also controlling costs and managing lost work time. Current courses cover a variety of topics including return-to-work programs, state leave laws, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation process. We love that our credential courses can help companies with the nuts and bolts of compliance, while also contributing to the career growth and professional development of those in the field.  

Fantastic. Let’s now shift to our discussion about inclusion. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us? 

Definitely. Inclusion underpins everything we do at DMEC, because we strive to help employers meet the needs of their workers when they become ill or injured, or when they need to care for someone else who is. And that aspect of leave is an important dimension of disability, which of course is a key part of diversity.

Most companies are familiar with the term “DEI” or “DEIB”—which stands for “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.” And it’s absolutely crucial to implement practices that empower people to bring their whole selves to work. But not everyone knows the term “DEIBA,” which is the latest evolution. The “A” stands for “accessibility,” acknowledging that people with disabilities are part of diversity, just like race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and other identity factors. 

Absence and disability management is about more than compliance with disability and leave laws. It’s also about prioritizing physical and mental health and understanding employees’ basic needs. And by becoming empathetic employers who understand this dimension of diversity and inclusion, we can boost employee retention and their sense of belonging.  

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?

Again, it goes back to empathy and caring about employees. If companies can implement absence management programs designed to keep employees working when they face life’s challenges, it fosters inclusion, loyalty, and workforce retention. 

Recently, I came across a compelling report highlighting the substantial impact of DEI within the corporate environment. The data unequivocally demonstrates the power of an inclusive culture. For instance, companies that thoroughly integrate DEI practices are not only more than twice (2.2) as likely to secure outstanding financial outcomes but also more than eight times (8.2) more likely to ensure customer satisfaction and loyalty. These advantages transcend the confines of the workplace and build a strong and loyal group of customers—key to a company’s success.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what this looks like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Can you please share a few examples? 

Certainly! At DMEC, we monitor and report on policy decisions and developments that impact absence, disability, and return-to-work programs. And that intersects directly with the provision of reasonable accommodations.

Reasonable accommodations are adjustments or modifications that enable people with disabilities to perform the essential functions of their job efficiently and productively. When requested, employers covered by the ADA are required to provide such reasonable

accommodations for employees with disabilities, absent undue hardship.  

Say, for example, an employee has an upcoming surgery that will require her to stay at home and recover before she can resume her duties at work. Everything goes well, except at the end of her recovery period, she learns from her doctor that, for the foreseeable future, she will need to limit the time she sits at a desk and take short walks several times a day to maintain her mobility. She wants to go back to work so she shares this information with her supervisor, initiating a request for a reasonable accommodation. 

Together with the organization’s absence and disability leave management professional, the employee and her supervisor engage in an interactive process to make an informed and appropriate decision on how to support the employee in her return to work. In this case, the team determines that the employee can convert her desk into a standing desk and take walks during her virtual meetings. They agree to check in after a few weeks to evaluate the effectiveness of this accommodation and ensure it does not impact the employee’s work performance.

We always emphasize that most reasonable accommodations are low cost or no cost—they are simply enhancements to a person’s workspace, duties, or schedule that help them perform their best. In 2022, DMEC conducted a survey to explore how organizations address and manage workplace accommodations. Interested readers can download our 2022 Workplace Accommodations Pulse Survey results.

Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? If you can, please share a few examples. 

Our @Work magazine regularly features articles on best practices to foster welcoming and disability-inclusive workplace cultures. While @Work is available exclusively to DMEC members, I am happy to share a few prevalent best practices. 

The COVID-19 pandemic affected organizations across the country, and determining employees’ vaccination status posed a risk of violating the ADA or HIPAA privacy rules. Even if making the request is not a disability-related inquiry, it may be considered a medical inquiry, and the employee’s response would be considered confidential medical information. While not subject to HIPAA in the employer-employee context, this information still may have protections under state statutory and common law. Consider, for example, that several states, such as California and Florida, include “medical information” as part of the definition of “personal information” under their breach notification laws. Accordingly, if that information is breached, which could include access to the information by an unauthorized party, notification may be required.  If an organization decides to ask workforce members about their vaccination status, there are steps it can take to minimize compliance risk. For instance, an organization can minimize the chance of an ADA violation by (i) designing the request so it is not likely to elicit information about a disability; (ii) not asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination; and (iii) warning the employee not to provide any medical information as part of the requested proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination.

While workplace mental health was already a high priority for many organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on nearly every aspect of daily life, including work, makes it more important than ever for employers to pay attention to this critical issue. For all organizations, but especially for those previously without formal mental health initiatives, we suggest following a four-part framework: (1) build awareness and a supportive culture, (2) provide accommodations to employees, (3) offer assistance to employees, and (4) ensure employees have access to healthcare plans that provide a comprehensive and flexible array of mental health services and supports.

Other articles available in @Work issues discuss best practices to ensure organizational leaders are compliant, as well as culturally competent, inclusive, and equitable for all employees. 

Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help promote disability inclusion? Can you share with us how the work culture was impacted as a result?

At DMEC, our disability-inclusive culture is a direct result of our remote work environment and hybrid approach to our annual conferences. 

Since our inception, DMEC has operated without a brick-and-mortar location so remote work has been an ever-present aspect of our organizational structure. We give all our employees the flexibility to create a workspace that meets their individual needs, enhancing their comfort and productivity in the process. This inherently accommodating environment reinforces our commitment to disability inclusion and enhances our culture of trust and autonomy; our focus is on our team members’ well-being, not where they do their job.

While the COVID-19 pandemic did not affect our day-to-day work environment, its challenges and restrictions shaped our hybrid-conference model. Initially, the impact on travel during 2020 and 2021 necessitated a complete pivot to virtual conferences. We responded to external constraints but also saw an opportunity to reassess and expand the accessibility of our professional development offerings. Our experience hosting webinars enabled us to make this shift seamlessly, ensuring continuous engagement with our community.

As circumstances evolved and in-person attendance increased, we preserved robust virtual access to our conferences, recognizing the value and inclusivity virtual participation offered, especially to members with disabilities or those who still faced barriers to travel. Notably, our post-conference virtual day, which highlights four of the top-rated in-person sessions, became a cornerstone of this approach and a chance to engage a broader audience.

Through our hybrid model, everyone—irrespective of their ability to travel—can access our most popular events. This careful balancing act reinforces DMEC’s commitment to inclusivity, demonstrating our flexibility and responsiveness to changing circumstances while upholding the values of accessibility and community engagement.

This is our signature question that we ask in many of our interviews. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started My Career”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

As I reflect on the evolution of my career, especially given the niche and dynamic disability and absence management field, I recall specific pivotal insights that profoundly shaped my professional journey. 

1. Invest in Education

When I entered the disability and absence management field, the formal educational system offered limited resources on this topic. It was through my own exploration and engagement with DMEC, the Business Group on Health, and other organizations that I found my footing. These resources provided a wealth of ongoing education and fostered a collaborative community of like-minded professionals. I remember my initial foray into these venues; it felt like stepping into a vast, unexplored world of knowledge. The webinars, workshops, and conferences I attended were instrumental in my growth, teaching me both the science and the art of managing disability and absence holistically. This experience was a stark reminder of the importance of seeking out specialized education and the value of industry-specific communities in professional development.

2. Find a Mentor

Early in my career, I found myself in a department that required specialized degrees in safety and ergonomics—a field far removed from my educational background. Feeling like an imposter, I was unsure of my contributions. However, my mentor, someone who was deeply invested in my development, guided me through this challenging period. He taught me how to leverage my unique perspective and collaborate effectively with my teammates, even leading projects that relied heavily on their formal education as opposed to my own. This mentorship bolstered my confidence; the experience taught me the invaluable skill of drawing on others’ expertise for collective success. The mentor-mentee relationship proved to be a cornerstone of my professional growth, illustrating the power of guidance and collaboration.

3. Be Adaptable

Laws and regulations evolve constantly in the disability and absence management space, necessitating an adaptable approach. I learned early on that rigidity was a fast track to obsolescence. Adapting to new laws and modifying benefit offerings and management strategies became second nature. This adaptability was put to the test when new legislation introduced significant changes to our benefits structure. It required a swift, strategic response. Thanks to my ingrained mindset to welcome adaptation, my team and I managed to comply with the new laws, while also enhancing our program’s effectiveness and accessibility.

4. Always Be Forward Thinking and Embrace Change

A strategic pivot at my company threatened to upend my department. Initially, I viewed this change with apprehension, fearing the unknown. However, this experience taught me to reframe change as an opportunity for growth. By embracing the new direction, I discovered new passions and roles that were both challenging and rewarding. This shift in perspective emphasized the importance of being forward-thinking and flexible, qualities that have since guided my approach to professional development and innovation.

5. Diversity and Inclusion Are Key

Starting my career in a company that genuinely valued diversity and inclusion was a fortuitous beginning. The rich tapestry of perspectives, experiences, and ideas to which I was exposed fostered an environment of creativity, innovation, and belonging. This experience illuminated the critical importance of actively seeking and contributing to diverse and inclusive environments. It’s not only a moral imperative but a strategic one that enriches the workplace and drives superior outcomes.

These five lessons are the bedrock of my professional philosophy, influencing every decision and strategy I implemented. They underscore the continuous journey of learning, adapting, and growing, all while fostering an inclusive and dynamic workplace environment.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life? 

My staff and our members often hear me say, “Compliance is the floor, not the ceiling.” That relates directly to our work at DMEC, where we help employers go beyond what’s required from a legal compliance standpoint and foster inclusive workplace policies that make their organizations better. We need to infuse empathy, understanding, and belonging into our organizations to create better environments and support people’s mental health. Because work is a huge part of someone’s life, and we all deserve to feel welcome and supported. 

But, for me, the “floor not the ceiling” sentiment has wider implications in everyday life. All of us need to go beyond what’s required in life and do the right thing. After all, if all of us did the bare minimum, we’d miss out on advancement, transformation, and innovation.  

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂 

If I could inspire a movement, it would center around the concept of “Compassionate Connectivity.” In today’s fast-paced and digitally interconnected world, it is easy to overlook the fundamental human need for empathy, understanding, and genuine connection. Compassionate Connectivity would aim to weave empathy into the fabric of our daily interactions, both online and offline, encouraging individuals, communities, and organizations to actively listen, understand, and respond to the needs of others with kindness and compassion.

This movement would have three core pillars:

  • Empathy Education in Schools: Integrating empathy training into school curriculums from an early age teaches children the importance of understanding and respecting different perspectives. This foundation would cultivate a more compassionate and inclusive future generation.
  • Workplace Empathy Initiatives: Encouraging businesses to prioritize empathy as a core value results in training and resources that foster an inclusive, supportive, and understanding work environment. This would not enhance employee well-being and drive innovation and productivity through a more engaged workforce.
  • Community Empathy Projects: Supporting initiatives that bring diverse groups together to share stories and experiences break down barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice. These projects would aim to strengthen community bonds and encourage a culture of mutual support and respect.

The ultimate goal of the Compassionate Connectivity movement would be to create a world where empathy and understanding are prioritized, leading to more inclusive societies, productive workplaces, and fulfilling personal relationships. By recognizing our shared humanity and the value of every individual, we can address many of the social, economic, and environmental challenges we face today. In a world of compassionate connectivity, acts of kindness and understanding become the norm, not the exception, bringing about widespread positive change and a deeper sense of belonging and purpose for everyone.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The best way to stay apprised of my work—and that of DMEC—is by following our organization on social media at the handles below.




You can also visit our website to read our latest resources and publications, and to learn more about membership.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!