Kirk Adams is president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind.
For most of us, work is a big part of how we define ourselves and measure our value. For many people with disabilities, it’s also the key to independence.
That’s a point worth remembering in October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Finding employment remains a monumental challenge for people with disabilities. And no wonder: A May 2016 study (PDF) by the Perkins School for the Blind found that only 28 percent of respondents felt a person who is blind could do their job and 32 percent did not think their workplace could accommodate such an employee.
The Americans with Disabilities Act expanded civil rights protections to disabled Americans, barring discrimination in employment requiring that private employers provide “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities.
The law has made a difference—just not enough.
For decades, the disabled community has emerged steadily from society’s margins and into the mainstream of American life. But still, we struggle to reverse a history of negative stereotypes and marginalization.
In 2005, according to the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics, only about 32 percent of working age adults with a sensory disability (impaired vision, speech or mobility) reported working full-time, compared to 56 percent of individuals without disabilities. The overall poverty rate for this demographic is also disproportionately high—24.6 percent for people with sensory disabilities versus 9.3 percent for those without disabilities.
These statistics do not reflect any lack of ability among job seekers with disabilities, but rather a lack of vision—the figurative kind—on the part of their would-be employers.
Back in the early 1980s, I graduated magna cum laude with a degree in economics from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. I even had some solid early work experience as a sports journalist for my hometown paper. When it came time to find a job, however, I ran into the same situation many college graduates with visual disabilities still face today.
I would send a resume and cover letter, and land a phone interview. All looked promising until I showed up for the in-person interview with my white cane. Suddenly I was no longer the capable candidate they had expected.
My academic background and my perseverance helped ensure I’d find opportunities eventually. But for many others, being disabled means being unemployed.
It shouldn’t be this way. Advances in information technology and other workplace tools have made “disability” a non-factor in many professions. We have excelled in business, medicine, engineering, journalism and government. You are more likely than ever to encounter an engineer who is blind, a tax preparer without the use of his legs, or a local grocer with a hearing impairment. Each such encounter erases fears and misperceptions.
Still, more needs to be done to ensure hiring managers view the disabled community as an asset to employers, not a group to be accommodated.
This month provides us with an occasion to remember that employing an empowered and diverse workforce can only enrich us.