Commentary
5:09 pm
Tue December 10, 2013

Commentary: Disability Employment Should Not Be A 'Special' Issue

In a speech sponsored by the Starkloff Disability Institute, the assistant secretary of labor and head of the Office of Disability Employment Policy spells out why hiring people with disabilities makes good sense. The remarks have been edited for length and clarity.

I just love (The Starkloff Disability Institute’s) tagline: "Redefining Independence." Where I work — at the Office of Disability Employment Policy — we're on a mission to redefine a lot of things. We talk a lot about redefining  disability. About redefining diversity. And about redefining the concept of an inclusive workforce. And every day, we're working to influence national policy and promote effective workplace practices that ensure today’s workforce is inclusive of all people — including people with disabilities.

photo of Kathleen Martinez
Kathleen Martinez
Credit Courtesy Starkloff Disability Institute

As a person with a disability myself, I obviously bring valuable perspective. But disability is only one of my many identify markers. Let’s see ... I’m blind. I’m a Latina. I’m a woman. I’m a lesbian. In other words, I’m a walking diversity checklist!

These additional identities — all of which I’m proud to fully bring with me to work every day — also add valuable insight to the Office of Disability Employment Policy, because our work is about more than just increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities — although that is the short and sweet way to describe our mission. It’s about strengthening America’s WORKFORCE through diverse perspectives.

As a manager, I always seek solutions derived from diverse perspectives rather than the one that approaches a problem from only one angle. Diversity drives innovation, and of course diversity simply must, and in fact does, include people with disabilities.

What's important to remember in all this is that disability employment should not be a quote-unquote “special” issue. Because it’s not about “things that happen to other people.”

Disability is about everyone. Even if we aren't personally affected by disability, we all know someone who is. And at any time, any one of us can become disabled, and 3 in 10 of us probably will at some point in our lives.

How many of you have had an unexpected illness or injury? How many of you are acquiring some health issues as you age? Maybe you aren't hearing or seeing as well as you used to?

Although we may not always label them as such, these “acquired” conditions are, in fact, disabilities, the same way that my blindness is a disability. And an inclusive workplace means accommodating ALL employees when certain needs arise — not just people who are born with disabilities.

Those who may be acquiring age-related disabilities, can manage successfully if their employers work with them to provide the accommodations they may need. Such workplace supports can include everything from screen reading software, to a telephone headset, to ergonomic pens! But I'm also talking about good practices like workforce flexibility, which can be especially helpful to the parent of a child with special needs or someone caring for an aging parent.

“Accommodations” is still a dirty word for many employers, but what they don’t realize is that most accommodations — which I prefer to call “productivity enhancements” — are low cost or no cost.

Not to mention, ALL of us need workplace supports and productivity enhancements — not just people with disabilities. Your computer is a workplace support. So is your smart phone. And so is that $1,500 ergonomic chair you requested! It’s time to take disability off the “special shelf” and remember that disability is an inherent part of the diversity that encompasses all of us.

Every employer should be thinking about improving the lives of individual workers and of working families, because by doing so they can help strengthen their own business — and also our nation’s workforce, our economy and our communities at large.

But how can we enlighten employers on these wise strategies? And on the merits of hiring people with disabilities? And on implementing disability-friendly workplace practices that benefit everyone? Education and awareness building are clearly important pieces of the puzzle. And so is explaining the so called "business case" for disability hiring.

ODEP is partnering with Dr. Peter Cappelli of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business to look closely at the myriad issues that impact whether companies include people with disabilities in their hiring efforts. We plan to leverage best practices from “inclusive” businesses — those that have successfully integrated people with disabilities into their workforce — to serve as a catalyst for businesses that have yet to do it. We’ll also work to provide the tools, incentives and support that less-advanced companies need to create a more inclusive workforce.

One reason some employers may need assistance promoting an inclusive workplace has to do with regulatory changes.

In August, the Labor Department issued a new rule designed to strengthen federal contractors’ responsibilities to hire, retain and advance qualified people with disabilities under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act. In particular, it establishes an aspirational 7 percent utilization goal for the employment of people with disabilities.

We also issued a rule designed to improve the employment rate of America’s veterans with disabilities. And under the new rule, (federal contractors) are required to establish an annual hiring benchmark, either based on the national percentage of veterans in the workforce — currently 8 percent — or based on the best available data and factors unique to their establishments.

To me, these updates are a demonstration of the old adage, “what gets measured gets done.” By holding federal contractors to measurable goals, they'll be compelled to make progress toward those goals.

The key is for employers to promote a workplace culture that is welcoming of people with disabilities.

Despite significant progress in recent years, many lack exposure to what workers with disabilities can do and so stigma and negative stereotypes persist. As our friends at Wharton have confirmed, highlighting the capabilities of people with disabilities, while minimizing the differences, is an effective marketing technique for countering stereotypes and prompting behavioral change.

I might be blind, but I can see the promise of an inclusive workplace very clearly. I can see clearly that it all comes down to the numbers — the numbers that are the real game changers. We’ve simply got to increase the number of people with disabilities who are employed. We’ve got to show — in numbers — that employing people with disabilities makes the workforce stronger. And, we’ve got to be able to count on workers with disabilities to help boost employers' bottom lines, as well as our nation's economy.

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