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Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace: Federal

Author: Sharon E. Jones, Jones Diversity Group


  • Diversity and inclusion initiatives differ from antidiscrimination measures. Antidiscrimination measures focus on the minimum requirements of the law. Diversity and inclusion initiatives, however, have a broader focus. See Difference Between Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives and Antidiscrimination Measures.
  • Developing a business case for diversity and inclusion will involve designing arguments that help senior management (and others) see the value of diversity and inclusion initiatives. HR's business case for diversity and inclusion should emphasize how these initiatives impact the employer's bottom line (i.e., HR should be able to convey a profit motive). See Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion.
  • Diversity and inclusion initiatives begin with a strategic plan based on the initiatives' metrics, baselines and benchmarks. See Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan.
  • Strategic recruiting and outreach efforts are important to increasing workplace diversity. See Recruiting and Outreach.
  • An employer's promotion and advancement process should be transparent. That is not only best practice, but also may increase the number of diverse employees represented in leadership roles. Diverse employees who understand the advancement process are in a better position to navigate it. See Succession Planning.
  • Mentoring initiatives and employee resource groups (ERGs) can be effective strategies for reducing unwanted attrition and feelings of isolation on the part of diverse employees. See Affinity Groups and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).
  • Diversity training is an essential component of any diversity and inclusion initiative. To build multicultural competencies over time, training should be interactive and employers should take a multiyear approach. See Education and Training.
  • Generational issues, globalization and religious accommodation are emerging issues in diversity and inclusion. See Emerging Issues in Diversity and Inclusion.

Diversity Defined

Diversity refers to difference. In the employment context, diversity includes differences in:

  • Race;
  • Gender;
  • Ethnicity;
  • Nationality;
  • Religion;
  • Sexual orientation;
  • Gender identity or expression;
  • Age;
  • Physical and mental disability;
  • Veteran status;
  • Socioeconomic status; and
  • Other employee differences.

Diversity initiatives typically focus on groups that are underrepresented in the work force, rather than groups that may be underrepresented in the general population.

Inclusion Defined

Inclusion focuses on whether the employer has a workplace culture in which diverse employees feel integrated, instead of isolated. An employer can have a diverse workplace without having an inclusive culture. In an inclusive workplace, the employer will develop a culture in which:

  • It is clear the employer values diversity;
  • Diverse employees feel included and have an equal opportunity for success; and
  • Employees feel comfortable, welcomed and valued.

Difference Between Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives and Antidiscrimination Measures

Antidiscrimination measures focus on legal compliance with equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws. See Employee Management > EEO - Discrimination.Antidiscrimination measures typically cover the bare minimum required by employers under US law and do not proactively focus on the employer's culture or promote the value of employee differences. Employers willing to do more than the bare minimum may undertake initiatives to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives focus on creating a workplace culture that values differences among employees and provides employees with equal opportunity for success. While diversity and inclusion initiatives and antidiscrimination measures are different, HR should include antidiscrimination measures in its diversity and inclusion initiatives. Usually, antidiscrimination measures are included in one of the initial stages of the diversity and inclusion continuum.

Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion

Some employers have a longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion. In other cases, HR will need to persuade senior management (and others) that diversity and inclusion initiatives are important to the employer's business. In making a business case for diversity and inclusion, HR will need to incorporate generally accepted business principles. HR should communicate those principles in a manner that draws a clear and positive link between diversity and inclusion and the employer's profitability and long term success. Meaningful arguments in support of diversity and inclusion include:

  • Diversity and inclusion initiatives minimize financial and reputational costs associated with employment discrimination claims.
  • Diverse teams create richer solutions, obtain better results and maximize employee innovation and creativity.
  • Diverse employers are better positioned to attract diverse talent.
  • Diverse leadership teams have been shown to have a positive impact on employers' financial success.
  • Most employers' customer bases are becoming increasingly diverse due, in part, to changing population demographics. A diverse customer base is best served by a diverse team.
  • Success in the global marketplace requires a work force with multicultural capabilities and competencies.
  • Customers committed to diversity often select vendors based on the potential vendor's demonstrable commitment to diversity. A diverse and inclusive organization will be better positioned to attract those customers.

Instead of tying diversity and inclusion to an employer's profitability or long term success, some HR professionals may prefer to make a business case that focuses on fairness or equity. While such arguments can be made, people define fairness and equity differently based upon their cultural lens, making it difficult for senior management and HR to reach a consensus. However, people generally agree on profit maximization as a primary motivational foundation.

Diversity and Inclusion Strategies: An Overview

Employers do not accidentally or organically arrive at a diverse and inclusive workplace. Senior management and HR must make an intentional effort to create a diverse and inclusive workplace. Achieving a diverse and inclusive workplace requires the same level of focus, measurement, time, attention and energy as employers use to meet other business objectives.

HR should help employers understand that a diversity and inclusion initiative is a major cultural change initiative, which occurs over time. It may, in fact, take several years for an employer to see the impact of its diversity and inclusion initiatives. Therefore, senior management must have a long term commitment to diversity and inclusion and should not expect immediate results.

Metrics and Baselines

Employers need to determine where they currently stand in terms of diversity, the work force demographics the employer wants to achieve and an acceptable time frame for achieving those demographics. HR should consistently measure the employer's progress towards its target work force demographics and make any necessary adjustments to the employer's diversity and inclusion initiatives.

To determine where they currently stand in terms of diversity, employers must decide which aspects of diversity and inclusion they will measure. Commonly measured aspects are:

  • Race;
  • Ethnicity;
  • Gender;
  • Sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning - LGBTQ); and
  • Age.

Some employers may also decide to measure other aspects, such as disability, religious affiliation and any other categories underrepresented in the employee population.

After an employer has determined which aspects of diversity it will measure, HR should work with senior managers to establish a baseline for each diversity aspect. For example:

  • What is the racial and ethnic diversity of the staff?
  • What is the racial and ethnic diversity of the executive team?
  • What is the racial and ethnic diversity of middle management?
  • What is the gender diversity of the staff?
  • What is the gender diversity of the executive team?
  • What is the attrition rate for each aspect of diversity the employer is tracking?
  • What is the diversity of the employer's new hires - from both college (including graduate school) and lateral hires?
  • What are the trends over the last three to five years, e.g., have the number of women in management level positions increased or decreased?

In addition to gathering this data, HR should identify benchmarks for assessing diversity and inclusion initiatives. Commonly used benchmarks are:

  • Population demographics;
  • Labor Department and Census statistics;
  • Competitor performance; and
  • College and graduate school graduation rates.

Practical Example

Suzanne is the chief operating officer for Acme Insurance Company. Suzanne is the only woman to hold an officer level position in Acme's 73-year history - a fact that Suzanne finds puzzling, until she looks at Acme's workplace demographics and discovers women are grossly underrepresented. Suzanne decides to speak with Acme's chief HR officer, Tom.

Tom knows that women are underrepresented, and decides to do a bit of digging to see why. Tom determines that most of Acme's employees are hired by referrals from current male employees. Also, after taking a few days to review data the HR department compiled from its exit interviews, Tom notices that most of Acme's female employees, even its top performers, leave after reaching mid-management level. More than half of Acme's female employees cited feelings of isolation and not fitting in as their reasons for leaving the company. Since those complaints were nonspecific and did not rise to the level of discrimination, Acme's HR department had not taken steps to address them.

Tom discusses his findings with Suzanne. They decide to take deliberate steps to improve the number of women represented in Acme's work force. Tom starts by comparing the number of female employees at Acme against the available female employees in the labor market. Then, Tom sets work force demographic goals for each of the next three years. Tom and Suzanne work together to develop diversity and inclusion initiatives, which include a dedicated diversity committee, affinity groups, targeted outreach programs, etc., to reach Acme's diversity goals.


Diversity and inclusion cultural assessments are excellent diagnostic tools and are instrumental in identifying barriers to workplace inclusion. Assessments help employers measure how and whether their diversity and inclusion initiatives are impacting the workplace. Those surveys serve as a baseline to measure long term progress and may be administered annually or biannually.

Assessments are often administered online and may include focus groups and interviews with a sample from the employee population. To obtain the best results, cultural assessments should be administered by an independent third party, such as a diversity and inclusion consultant. Employees are more likely to speak freely with a third party, giving the employer more accurate results. Along those same lines, cultural assessments must also be confidential and anonymous, and efforts should be made to encourage that perception among employees. The results of the assessment should be shared with senior management and employees in an aggregate fashion to maintain employee anonymity.

Assessments may also play a vital role in helping HR make a business case for diversity. Assessments provide evidence that diversity and inclusion issues exist. That evidence can be used to persuade a dubious management team to embrace diversity and inclusion initiatives. Additionally, if the assessment is administered by a third party, HR will not have to deliver the message. Sometimes hearing that a third party thinks diversity and inclusion is an issue will push the employer into action.

An effective cultural assessment should solicit detailed information concerning employee perceptions regarding:

  • Differences in promotion and advancement;
  • Differences in compensation;
  • Differences in access to opportunities (e.g., for training and development);
  • Sexual harassment or other unlawful discrimination; and
  • Management's commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Diversity and Inclusion Mission Statement

As a matter of best practices, HR should work with senior managers to develop a diversity and inclusion mission statement. The mission statement will be the foundation for the employer's diversity and inclusion efforts. Employers will often refer to their diversity and inclusion statement to explain why the employer is taking certain actions, such as:

  • Creating affinity groups;
  • Developing mentoring programs;
  • Providing diversity and inclusion training; and
  • Recruiting at different colleges and universities.

HR professionals should keep in mind that the standard equal employment opportunity (EEO) phrase, i.e., "We do not discriminate on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc." is not a diversity and inclusion mission statement. The EEO statement addresses the employer's compliance with antidiscrimination laws, but does not address the employer's commitment to diversity and inclusion. The employer's diversity and inclusion mission statement must be a positive aspirational statement and should incorporate a broad definition of diversity. That definition should include:

  • Race;
  • Ethnicity;
  • Gender;
  • Sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning);
  • Religion;
  • Nationality;
  • Gender identity and gender expression;
  • Age;
  • Physical and mental disability;
  • Parental status;
  • Veteran status; and
  • Socioeconomic status.

When it is adopted, the diversity and inclusion mission statement should be communicated by the employer's CEO or president to all employees. Having the president or CEO communicate the mission statement, instead of HR, sends a strong message to employees, i.e., the employer has a top-down commitment to developing and maintaining a diverse work force and an inclusive workplace culture. Employers should also include their mission statements on their websites and in new hire orientation materials.

Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan

Creating a diverse and inclusive culture is a multiyear effort. A diversity and inclusion strategic plan is a useful way to manage the employer's diversity and inclusion initiative. The strategic plan is the employer's diversity and inclusion roadmap. That plan will generally include what strategies will be pursued and when the strategies will be pursued. Strategic plans typically span three years and can include budget approvals, as required.

HR should develop the plan with input from senior management. HR's first step is to consider the aspects of diversity on which the employer will focus and the steps it will take during each year of the strategic plan. An internal diversity and inclusion committee may help HR with this process by providing feedback and guidance on tactics and timing. Diversity and inclusion committees should be diverse not only in terms of race, gender, generation, etc., but also with respect to employee rank (i.e., lower level employees, mid-management level employees and senior managers). Senior management's representation on the diversity committee is imperative because once the strategic plan is completed, HR will require senior management's buy-in before implementing it.

Recruiting and Outreach

Diversity and inclusion efforts start with an employer's access to a diverse talent pool.

Employers should consider using search firms and/or search teams led by diverse individuals. When using search firms, employers should:

  • Provide a copy of the diversity and inclusion mission statement;
  • Advise the search firm that the employer values diversity;
  • Require the search firm to provide a diverse slate of candidates; and
  • Make it clear that a hiring decision will not be made unless the firm provides a diverse slate of candidates.

When recruiting through on campus interviews, employers should strategically select colleges and universities that will maximize the employer's access to diverse students. Outreach efforts on campuses, as well as continuous support and sponsorship of diverse student groups, can improve an employer's diversity efforts. Employers may recruit through organizations, such as:

Also, employers can obtain referrals of high potential, diverse graduates by developing relationships with key diverse professors.

An employer's on campus recruiting team and interviewers are the employer's first personal contact with candidates. If possible, the interview teams themselves should be diverse. It is important that all interviewers, even diverse interviewers, receive diversity and inclusion training and are prepared to respond to any questions diverse applicants may ask. Interviewers should be familiar with the employer's work rules on:

  • Domestic partner health insurance;
  • Workplace flexibility programs;
  • Maternity or paternity leave programs; and
  • Other work rules that diverse candidates may find important.

Similarly, knowing the employer's diversity related statistics and its diversity and inclusion initiative's strategic plan can be helpful.

Lateral hiring is an excellent way to advance diversity and inclusion initiatives. Lateral hiring of high performing, diverse senior executives provides role models for diverse employees in lower and middle level positions. Also, strategic lateral hiring at middle levels improves the pace of diverse individuals advancing to senior levels. Employers may identify and attract diverse lateral hires by posting and distributing job announcements through diverse professional organizations.

Mentoring Initiatives

A strong mentoring program or mentoring culture is a valuable tool in eliminating barriers to inclusion for diverse employees. Diverse employees are least likely to have access to informal mentoring. Therefore, employers that are committed to diversity should implement formal, systemic mentoring programs and initiatives. Mentoring relationships provide role models for employees, as well as an opportunity to learn employers' unwritten rules and policies.

Practical Example

Lisa has been working for Acme Construction Company for four years. During that time, Lisa has consistently exceeded her manager's expectations. Lisa is the only female employee in Acme's corporate offices. Most of Acme's other employees are males that were promoted from Acme's construction site. Even though Lisa feels she has always been treated fairly, she cannot help but wonder if she has been passed over for promotions because she is a woman.

Lisa participates in Acme's mentorship program. Acme's mentorship program encourages mentors to keep mentor-mentee communications confidential. So, Lisa decides to share her concerns with Frank, her mentor.

Frank is surprised. He explains that each manager in the division has a say in promotions, even those that do not involve the manager's direct reports. Until becoming her mentor, Frank had never met Lisa even though they work in the same division. After becoming her mentor, Frank notices that Lisa never sits with colleagues and division managers during lunch.

At Acme, lunch is a very important bonding time. So, he suggests that, at least once a week, Lisa spend lunch getting to know her colleagues and the division managers. Lisa had no idea that attending lunch was an unwritten rule that was impacting her advancement. Lisa takes Frank's advice and is promoted the following year.

Successful mentoring relationships are frequently highlighted as instrumental in an employee's advancement to senior leadership roles. Mentoring relationships also promote job satisfaction and reduce unwanted attrition.

To be successful, a mentoring program should have the following key elements:

  • Defined length (often one year);
  • Defined goals;
  • Training for mentors and mentees on their respective roles, the mentoring program's objectives and cross-cultural issues;
  • Access to special development opportunities and access to executive presentations;
  • An individual responsible for assessing the program's benefits, obtaining periodic feedback and resolving any weaknesses in the program's administration or implementation;
  • The establishment of mentor-mentee relationships across racial, ethnic, gender, generational, etc., lines of difference; and
  • Confidentiality within the mentor-mentee relationship, unless it violates the mentor's legal or ethical responsibilities.

Affinity Groups and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Affinity groups, also referred to as employee resource groups (ERGs), are a valuable strategy in creating a diverse and inclusive culture. They are particularly useful in reducing unwanted attrition of diverse employees and reducing feelings of isolation that sometimes arise when there are a small number of diverse employees spread across several offices - either locally, nationally or internationally. ERGs are used to provide assistance on a variety of business objectives, such as:

  • Marketing;
  • Product design and innovation;
  • Sales; and
  • Business development.

ERGs can be used as a mechanism for implementing targeted skills development and mentoring programs. However, ERGs are most frequently used to obtain feedback from a segment of the employee population on various issues, including employment policies or business issues.

HR can create ERGs targeting various dimensions of difference, including:

  • Gender (e.g., women's groups);
  • LGBTQ individuals;
  • Parenting (e.g., working mothers, single fathers or international adoptions);
  • Age (e.g., employees over 50 years old);
  • Race or ethnicity (e.g., black or Asian); or
  • Employees with disabilities (physical or mental).

It is important to establish a transparent policy for deciding whether a particular group will be established as an ERG. ERGs should have budgets and a plan that sets forth how the ERG promotes the employer's interests. For example, a women's network may be created to develop business and network with female clients. That clearly supports the employer's interests and would warrant a budget to support those activities. A bowling league could be an ERG, but may not warrant a significant budget if its only purpose is to connect bowlers within the organization.

HR, or the employer's diversity and inclusion committee, is usually responsible for authorizing ERGs consistent with a well articulated policy. Usually, the ERG comes up with the clever name for the group, which would then be approved by HR. ERGs should be encouraged to have programming that is open to all, but the employer should also recognize that ERGs may need to have closed sessions from time to time.

Promotion and Advancement

HR is often challenged to increase the number of diverse employees in leadership roles. For HR, the biggest hurdle is often getting diverse employees beyond middle management. From entry level up to middle management, being a skilled and hard worker will generally translate into a promotion. For entry level and middle management positions, the criteria for promotion are often objective and job openings are typically announced. Advancement beyond middle management is usually more subjective, and openings are not always announced.

Introducing transparency into the promotion and advancement process will benefit all employees, but especially diverse employees who:

  • May not understand the employer's unwritten rules; or
  • May not have professional relationships within the organization that will lead to promotion or advancement.

Therefore, employers should have clear criteria for advancement and promotion, and a formal, objective process. If advancement and promotion processes are transparent and objective, diverse candidates will have equal opportunity to succeed in the organization. Additionally, diverse candidates who are not advanced will be unlikely to assume unlawful considerations (i.e., race, gender, etc.) are driving the process.

Succession Planning

Succession planning is a commonly used strategy for leadership planning and development. Diversity and inclusion considerations should be a part of succession planning discussions. Employers can prepare high potential, diverse candidates for senior leadership roles through mentoring relationships.

Also, employers should have training programs available to help all employees (diverse and non-diverse) grow within the organization, such as:

  • Management training for employees transitioning from nonmanagement to management roles; or
  • Leadership training for employees transitioning into nonmanagement roles that will require them to frequently lead team projects.

Employees are typically promoted for doing a good job in their current position. However, there may be a gap between the employee's existing skill set and the skill set the employee will need to succeed in the new position. Training will help bridge that gap and increase the employee's opportunity to succeed in his or her advanced role.

Employers should also vet proposed promotions and other advancement opportunities by a diverse group of decision makers. Doing so will foster equal opportunity for advancement and avoid any appearance of unfairness or impropriety within the decision-making process.

Education and Training

Employers committed to diversity will have a diversity and inclusion training strategy. Training helps by:

  • Creating a common language for employees to use when discussing diversity related issues;
  • Helping HR establish a baseline for its business case; and
  • Showing employees that the employer values diversity and inclusion.

A comprehensive diversity training program should:

  • Include all employees (management and nonmanagement);
  • Be conducted in small sessions (usually no more than 25 individuals per session);
  • Contain interactive, thought provoking content;
  • Be mandatory;
  • Be conducted by trained facilitators (e.g., consulting firm or law firm);
  • Be in-person as opposed to videotaped or online;
  • Focus on diversity awareness and inclusion at an initial session and, subsequently, address more complex issues (e.g., issues of privilege, communicating across lines of difference); and
  • Include a separate session for senior managers.

Communications Plan

A communications plan is an essential part of any diversity and inclusion initiative. See Employee Management > Employee Communications. HR, in conjunction with the employer's diversity committee, should carefully consider any employer communications that relate to diversity and inclusion. Important policy related communications should come from senior management, such as communications:

  • Concerning the employer's commitment to diversity and inclusion;
  • Announcing members of the diversity council or committee; and
  • Launching the employer's mandatory diversity training program.

Putting senior management's power and authority behind the employer's diversity and inclusion initiatives boosts the initiatives' credibility among employees.

Employers communicate with potential customers and employees through its website. Employers' websites impact the way the outside world views the employer's business operations. Therefore, HR should carefully review all language and images to make sure the website projects a diverse and inclusive image of the employer. The website should:

  • Use gender neutral language;
  • Have diverse images;
  • Contain the employer's diversity and inclusion mission statement;
  • Have a specific area focusing on diversity and inclusion; and
  • Showcase diversity committee members, if applicable.

Similar to the website, HR should review marketing materials and brochures to ensure the images are diverse and inclusive and the language is gender neutral.

In addition to the visible aspects of the communications plan discussed above, employers should also consider the inadvertent signals and messages resulting from its treatment of religious or ethnic holidays. Some best practices HR should consider are:

  • If employers do not recognize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as an employer holiday, it should commemorate the day in another way.
  • For any religious holidays that employers do not recognize, such as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Good Friday, employees should be provided with flex days to use for those holidays. Employers should avoid scheduling mandatory meetings on those religious holidays.
  • Employers should try to sponsor events at diverse locations and should avoid sponsoring events at locations that are known to exclude diverse groups.

All of these decisions communicate the employer's commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Emerging Issues in Diversity and Inclusion

Emerging issues in diversity and inclusion, include:

  • How diversity is defined;
  • Religious differences; and
  • How the global economy impacts diversity and inclusion.

Diversity's Changing Definition

Diversity used to narrowly focus on racial differences, gender inequality and the aging work force. Today, however, diversity has a broader focus that also addresses generational, global and religious differences, among others. For example, diversity issues surrounding age used to focus on differences between employees under 40 years old and those over 40 years old. However, with the number of younger - generation X, generation Y and millennial - employees in the work force, employers are redefining age diversity and articulating it as generational diversity. Generation X, generation Y and millennial employees have a very different world view than their older, baby boomer colleagues. Employers that are committed to diversity are developing creative ways to motivate different generations and avoid workplace conflicts.

Emergence of Religious Accommodation Issues

Religious differences have also emerged as a hot topic in diversity. The most commonly encountered issues range from accommodating religious attire to accommodating prayer time. For instance:

  • Accommodating an employee's obligation to pray during the workday without disrupting the employer's operations; or
  • Accommodating an employee's religious attire in a workplace where employees are required to wear an employer-issued uniform.

To accommodate religious requirements, employers can make modifications to employer-provided uniforms or establish quiet rooms employees can use for prayer. Quiet rooms are rooms employers set aside for employees' private use. In addition to prayer, quiet rooms may be used by mothers who need to express breast milk. Regardless, solutions for developing suitable religious accommodations depend on the employer's operational needs and the needs of the specific employee. HR should, therefore, work with the affected employee to develop a workable solution. Also, after a reasonable period of time, HR should follow up with the employee to confirm the solution is, in fact, working.

International Employers: Creating a Global Community

Beyond the focus on diversity and inclusion in the US, HR for an international employer has additional responsibilities to create a global diversity and inclusion strategy. This is a particularly complex, but attainable, goal. HR should start by working with senior management and each local HR team to create a global diversity and inclusion plan and a global diversity and inclusion mission statement.

Although this initiative may be led in the US, inclusion for an international employer cannot be US focused. Each location should be considered. Local and international diversity strategies are essentially the same. However, HR may need to:

  • Tailor its business case from local to international profit motives;
  • Alter its communication methods to address diversity and inclusion as a global commitment; and
  • Add global representatives to the employer's diversity committee. (Doing this at the outset may help develop a single global strategy.)

International employers should also consider incorporating global employee resource groups or affinity groups. For example, an employer's women's network group may have local offices, but also connect through a global women's network.

It is also imperative for international employers to provide training for employees who routinely travel to international locations on business. That training should include cultural sensitivity training, training regarding local customs and dress, etc. Employees in the US who travel abroad and international employees who travel to the US should receive training. By doing so, the employer is less likely to have incidents caused by a cultural misunderstanding. Also, employees will understand what is considered unlawful conduct in the office they are visiting and will be less likely to engage in such conduct.

Future Developments

There are no developments to report at this time. Continue to check XpertHR regularly for the latest information on this and other topics.

Additional Resources

Diversity and Inclusion Supervisor Briefing

Catalyst, consult for corporate, gender focused research, initiatives and strategies targeting women

Human Rights Campaign, consult for diversity and inclusion strategies targeting LGBTQ

American Association of People with Disabilities, consult for diversity and inclusion strategies targeting individuals with disabilities