According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61 million Americans live with a disability. Given that this number represents roughly one-fifth of the U.S. population, there is a strong likelihood that most people know at least one person with a disability. Whether someone has a physical disability that is visibly apparent or an invisible disability that is less noticeable from direct observation–they may be friends, family or neighbors. While initiatives such as Section 503 guidelines drive disability hiring by federal employers, there are many more opportunities to advocate for individuals with disabilities, especially as we look to develop the evolving post-COVID work environment.
Important facts to keep in mind include that 156 million American workers are insured for disability benefits through the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, and it’s estimated one out of every 7 to 8 adults will experience a disability of five years or longer. This means that experiencing a work-disrupting disability in the form of an injury or illness is a possibility for anyone. That’s why it is so important to continue efforts that reduce misconceptions about individuals with disabilities, particularly in the workplace.
Everyone’s thinking needs to change, and this means working to reduce those aspects of societal practices that are exclusionary, such as proactively accounting for accessibility in the design of a building so that wheelchair and other equipment users can transport themselves more easily. Another example is modifying the language used to discuss the topics of diversity and inclusion—through education and proper terminology—because poor wording conveys poor understanding of the issues involved.
The case managers here at Allsup Employment Services work one-on-one with individuals with disabilities who are returning to the workplace, and they regularly have discussions about what to expect from their return to employment. This includes encountering possible preconceptions or misinformation about how the person will be able to complete their job, or that they will in some way require special treatment, which is simply not true. Accommodations are about having the right tools in place (whether physical or procedural) necessary to do the work, nothing more and nothing less.
If you’d like to help made a difference in your workplace, consider these methods for advocating for a more inclusive environment.
Become more informed
Education is the great equalizer. Before we can settle on the full range of solutions to improve the inclusion of individuals with disabilities, individuals need to educate themselves about the challenges and opportunities. AES case managers often help employees struggling to overcome a perceived bias or prejudgment when they begin interviewing for jobs. Sometimes hiring managers’ assessments can be clouded by myths related to what the person can or cannot do, or there is presumption of difficulty in hiring someone with a disability. However, with some investigation, employers will find that many of these assumptions are wrong – and even that data show the opposite is true: many organizations see significant corporate culture and revenue advantages from hiring people with disabilities.
There may be the perception that societal advances have contributed enough with the Americans with Disabilities Act and related regulatory steps. But with a closer look at obstacles in today’s national economy and local communities, one can begin to understand the significance of obstacles that still need to be addressed going forward – and one of those is employment opportunities.
Cultivate greater empathy
It makes sense that if someone is not directly affected by a problem or limitation, it may not be top of mind and there can be a lack of appreciation for the issues involved. It’s true that part of being human is the tendency to focus on one’s own problems. And in the past year, the pandemic brought with it a fresh wave of financial and social issues. But for individuals with disabilities, these problems were compounded by increasing complexity with healthcare risks and care management challenges they faced, such as reduced access to physicians’ offices and disruption in access to medication.
Empathy has become an integral part of recognizing the common struggles people face in the past year and recognizing that others may be struggling as well is one way to practice it. There is an opportunity now to continue building a more balanced perspective and providing support to friends, neighbors and co-workers with disabilities.
Change your language
Words have power, and how we talk to and about individuals with disabilities is another opportunity for improving and demonstrating awareness and respect, rather than ignorance or dismissal. The most important thing to remember is that the majority of individuals with disabilities consider that aspect of themselves to be just that, one part, and not their entire identity. Whether their condition is temporary or chronic, it does not define them.
Every individual we assist wants to get back to work and is trying to look beyond the disability that forced them out of the workforce. Awareness and understanding that your words can convey respect for this opportunity will make a difference for individuals who have overcome significant health setbacks to get to this point of workforce readiness.
If the U.S. economy is going to realize a true rebound from the recent pandemic, it makes sense to also advocate for individuals with disabilities to be a part of the employment and financial recovery. We all have a part to play in making recent progress more permanent and in furthering efforts to increase diversity and inclusion, so let’s start implementing these strategies today to build a better tomorrow.
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