October is designated National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in the United States to celebrate the many and varied workplace contributions of people with disabilities, or unique abilities. This year, the NDEAM theme is: “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion.”
The theme reflects the importance of ensuring that people with disabilities are not left behind as American workplaces recover from the COVID-19 pandemic that disproportionately affected this population of workers in terms of increased risk of complications from illness, less access to routine health care and rehabilitation, and adverse social effects from COVID-19 protocols.
Before digging deeper into the current employment challenges faced by people with disabilities, it’s important to explore how we got to this point. Unfortunately, people with disabilities have been largely ignored by Corporate America even prior to the pandemic.
A Troubled History
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a disability has three dimensions:
- Impairment in a person’s body structure or function, or mental functioning; examples of impairments include loss of a limb, loss of vision, or memory loss.
- Activity limitations, such as difficulty seeing, hearing, walking, or problem solving. It is the execution of a task or action by an individual.
- Participation restrictions in normal daily activities, such as working, engaging in social and recreational activities and obtaining health care and preventive services. This is a person’s involvement in a life situation.
Despite having a U.S. President with a disability, Franklin D. Roosevelt, very little was done in the United States for people with disabilities until 1945. That year, Congress enacted a law declaring the first week of October each year would be National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.
In 1962, the word "physically" was removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. The President’s Committee on Employment of the Physically Handicapped was renamed The President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, reflecting increased interest in employment issues affecting people with cognitive disabilities and mental illness. In 1988, Congress refined the name of the observance to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. As President Joe Biden, who had sponsored the bill as a senator, stated in his Presidential Address, “This was the moment when our Nation decided to move closer to fulfilling its foundational promise of liberty, justice, dignity, and equality for all. This year, the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the Department of Labor is celebrating 20 years of helping advance opportunity for workers with disabilities across the Nation.”
Yet, equal opportunity for workers with disabilities has remained elusive. Prior to COVID, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was more than double that of people with no disabilities. COVID has exacerbated the problem. The societal lockdown has meant more exclusion for a group that has historically been excluded. Cancellations and postponement of rehabilitation and regular health care appointments have taken a toll. If assistive technology has not been prescribed, maintained, or repaired, people with disabilities have lost their independence; some have had to move in with relatives. Facemasks and social distancing have negatively impacted individuals with hearing loss who read lips. Individuals with visual impairments who use guide dogs find it hard to follow the rules and have experienced further stigma.
Patients with intellectual disabilities have been six times more likely to die from COVID-19 than other people throughout the pandemic. “Having an intellectual disability was the highest independent risk factor for contracting COVID-19, controlling for race, ethnicity, and other variables. It was higher even than age or heart or lung problems,” according to Wendy Ross, MD, in an Association of American Medical Colleges article.
As far as the workplace is concerned, at the start of the pandemic, only 19.3% of our disabled workforce was employed compared to 66.3% of the general workforce. Unemployment rose sharply for everyone when the pandemic was announced by the World Health Organization in March 2020. By August, five months later, already one million U.S. workers with disabilities had lost their jobs. Over the course of 2020, 17.9% of persons with a disability were employed, down from 19.3% as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (reported on February 24, 2021). Today, almost 13% of people with disabilities are unemployed compared to 7.9% of the general population. Between 50% and 75% of the 5.6 million autistic adults in the U.S. are unemployed or underemployed. Nearly 50% of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job, regardless of experience, skills, and expertise.
What Can Companies Do
Hiring people with disabilities to the list of top priorities that could provide significant ROI coming out of COVID. The National Library of Medicine found in 2017, “that [the] benefits of hiring people with disabilities included improvements in profitability (e.g., profits and cost-effectiveness, turnover and retention, reliability and punctuality, employee loyalty, company image), competitive advantage (e.g., diverse customers, customer loyalty and satisfaction, innovation, productivity, work ethic, safety), inclusive work culture, and ability awareness.”
Don’t let misperceptions about costs or difficulty finding the right candidates hinder you. Accommodations for people with disabilities cost about $500 per employee on average. In fact, 31% of accommodations cost nothing. There are abundant resources available from the U.S. Department of Labor to help employers find and hire the right candidates, including the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN), the Workforce Recruitment Program for College Students with Disabilities (WRP), the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), and the Campaign for Disability Employment.
You also want to make your workplace as welcoming as possible for people with disabilities, as you would for all of your employees. Here are some tips for building a culture that values and supports employees with disabilities.
- Host a Disability Mentoring Day
- Provide volunteer opportunities to your employees
- Display posters promoting disability inclusion
- Interview students with disabilities during campus recruiting trips
- Host a Disability 101 event for employees
- Create a safe culture that celebrates unique abilities
- Offer classes
- Ensure your policies are current and inclusive