Every October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) recognizes the role of individuals with disabilities in the American workforce. This topic is near and dear to me, as I serve as the chair of Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind’s board. Over the years, we’ve helped prepare people who are blind or visually impaired for the job market. As a result, I’ve learned first-hand how this qualified and motivated talent contributes to the world of work.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m enormously grateful that NDEAM makes us more attentive to providing opportunities to everyone in the workforce. It’s just that I think this focus needs to be baked into our workplace DNA as a critical part of diversity and inclusion programs all year long.
NDEAM began in 1945 as a week-long observance and was expanded to the entire month of October in 1988. Since 2001, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy has been responsible for extending the reach and scope of NDEAM. This year’s theme reflected disability as part of the equity equation, which was so clearly stated in the U.S. Department of Labor’s press release: “A strong workforce is the sum of many parts, and disability has always been a key part of the equation,” said Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy Taryn M. Williams. “People with disabilities make up a wonderfully multifaceted group. By recognizing the full complexion of our community, we can ensure our efforts to achieve disability inclusion are, in fact, truly inclusive.”
Sixty-one million adults in the United States live with a disability. The majority have mobility issues, followed by neurodiversity, hearing, and vision. And yet, every one of these individuals has abilities – not just disabilities – that can contribute to the workforce when disability inclusion is core to an employer’s DEI programs.
Awareness is the first step in generating change. Years ago, it was very difficult for individuals with limited mobility to navigate city streets. Curbs can be major hurdles when one is in a wheelchair, and ramps weren’t ubiquitously available until the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Physical barriers – such as curbs - are a great visualization for the other barriers that might exist within your organization. For example, are you giving disabled job candidates – such as those with low vision or who are neurodiverse – the chance to take pre-hire assessment tests that consider their situation without creating bias? Have you committed to 100% work-from-home positions that ensure digital accessibility? Are hiring managers trained to emphasize abilities, not limitations?
Earlier this year, National Industries for the Blind (NIB) CEO Kevin Lynch commented, “By changing people’s practices in the workplace and their perceptions about disability in general, we can create more inclusive environments where employees and companies thrive. All it takes is awareness and effort.” I agree with Kevin. The benefits of a diverse workforce are indisputable: improved productivity, increased innovation, and higher levels of employee engagement. Including people from the disability community should be an integral part of diversity initiatives and will instill pride in the employer, the employees and their served communities.