AFB CareerConnect Thoughts on the WSJ Article, "Are You Disabled? Your Boss Needs to Know"

03/21/2014

You may have recently read the Wall Street Journal article by Lauren Weber about bosses asking employees to disclose whether they have a disability. Ms. Weber frames the issue pretty accurately, and I loved the comments included overall. Starting next week, all federal contractors (i.e., companies that do contract work for or with the U.S. federal government) will have to 1) ask whether their employees are disabled and 2) employ a minimum of 7% disabled workers or demonstrate that they are taking steps to hire disabled workers. This new language specific to federal contractors is a great follow up to President Obama's initiative for the U.S. federal government to become a model employer in the hiring of persons with disabilities.

I have a lot of personal and professional feelings on this issue as a person with a disability. Finishing my undergraduate studies in 2001, I really wasn't confident and accepting of my disability or disabilities. I wasn't educated on the subject. At that time, it was not visible to most that I was legally blind, so unless someone asked, I didn't necessarily have to disclose my disability. Today, I spend a lot of my time speaking to youth and adults who are blind or visually impaired about disclosure. To be honest, my younger self would have benefited from spending some time at a 2014 Joe Strechay CareerConnect workshop, learning about disclosure and being able to talk confidently about being a person with a disability.

I have done 31 teen employment workshops around the United States over the past 15 months. The overwhelming theme of my workshops is self awareness and navigating the employment process. Individuals are not often comfortable speaking about their disability, but the more comfortable they are speaking about it and how they accomplish skilled tasks, the more comfortable an employer will be. Each individual is different and comes from different experiences. The level of adjustment to being a person with a disability varies. Many people don't want to admit they have a disability or think of the word disability as a bad word. It isn't. I have a disability. I went through school with multiple disabilities. Besides being visually impaired (now blind), I went through my schooling with services for a learning disability.

The fact is, in today's workforce, companies embrace diversity. This doesn't mean that if you don't have the skills to do the job, that an employer will hire you. This means, if it comes down to you and an equally qualified individual without a disability, the organization might look to expand its diversity. Not all organizations will be on the up and up about this, but I would bet that 95% will make the effort. Companies like money, and they will not want to be fined or lose contracts, as federal contractors will do if they don't meet hiring minimums. This is a powerful second step, and I believe there will be third, fourth, and many other steps toward change.

Employees of federal contractors can choose not to disclose their disability, but I hope they do. In fact, if I were a job seeker with a disability, I would be looking for employment specifically with federal contractors or subcontractors, and I would be forthcoming in disclosing my disability status.

Organizations like the United States Business Leadership Network (USBLN) and the National Organization on Disability (NOD) offer businesses advice and resources specific to initiatives such as this one. I participate in activities with the USBLN, and their Disability Equality Index could assist organizations in embracing disability in their workforce. The Partnership on Employment and Accessibility of Technology (PEAT) offers resources on creating accessibility within an organization, and this organization offers a program and assistance that could be utilized in conjunction with the USBLN or NOD.

The Wall Street Journal article mentioned that some people are critical of the broad definition of disability as they fear companies will meet their "quotas" within their current workforce. I really don't think so. I think disclosure will be a tremendous battle for organizations, and businesses will have to think creatively and open their recruitment practices. I have already started to see some changes as a result of this new initiative, such as job postings specific to the recruitment of persons with disabilities and veterans. Part two is just starting, but I am positive this will set the stage for some great next steps.

There are far more reasons to disclose than not. Although no one can force you to disclose your disability, I hope you will. Along with your disclosure, highlight your skills, accomplishments, and successes. People often wonder how I use a computer as a person who is blind. I explain the access technology that I use in general practical terms, but throw in that I know aspects of computer programming languages. Someone who can do computer programming can obviously use a computer. I explain that I use a white cane to travel through my community and environment safely and efficiently. I have been trained by professionals on how to utilize environmental information to allow me to do this. If they ask more questions, I will answer. I want people to feel comfortable, and I would rather that employers or the public ask the question than just make their own generalizations. I think disclosure is a life skill, not an employment skill, and we have the opportunity to practice disclosure almost every day of our lives.

I hope you get a chance to read the article; please share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below. And visit AFB CareerConnect to check out resources on employment and disclosure. Join the movement and hire a person with a disability!