Updated: Oct 21, 2021
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the United States.
According to the Official Department of Labor Webpage, "The theme for NDEAM 2021, “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion,” reflects the importance of ensuring that people with disabilities have full access to employment and community involvement during the national recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
NDEAM is held each October to commemorate the many and varied contributions of people with disabilities to America’s workplaces and economy." The webpage provides many resources about facilitating inclusion in the workplace for those with disabilities.
President Biden signed a proclamation for National Disability Awareness Month 2021 on September 30, 2021. President Biden states that, "My Administration remains focused on ensuring that every single American has the chance to thrive, succeed, and contribute their talents. That is why I have issued Executive Orders to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility to bolster career paths and promote economic stability for Americans with disabilities."
Disability awareness is a subject that is close to my heart, because I am a disabled worker. After having lost a good job 2 years ago because of panic attacks from my PTSD, I applied for this round of jobs listing myself as disabled on my job applications.
Who Qualifies as a Disabled Worker?
How do you know if you are considered to be a worker with a disability? It is anyone with a physical or mental disability. According to Nolo, there are three categories of employees that are covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act:
"An employee who has a disability. If an employee has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, he or she is protected.
An employee with a history of impairment. An employer can't discriminate against an employee based on his or her previous disability (for example, an employee who is in remission from cancer).
An employee who the employer regards as disabled. This is true even if the employer is wrong, and the employee is not actually disabled. If the employer discriminates against an employee based on an incorrect belief that the employee has a disability, the employee is protected by the ADA."
If you want a list of all the conditions that the US Government qualifies as a disability, you can look at the Social Security Page.
Over half of the people in the US with disabilities are currently working. According to the Department of Labor, "The total number of people with disabilities aged 16-64 is 33,153,211.
Of those, the total number employed is 18,525,862.
The percent of people with disabilities aged 16-64 employed is 55.8%.
Of the 18.6 million people with disabilities employed aged 16-64, 60.1% of men with disabilities are employed, and 51.4% of women with disabilities are employed."
Facing Discrimination as a Disabled Worker.
Many disabled workers face discrimination in both getting, and keeping jobs. Although the Americans With Disabilities Act has been in place for 31 years, it can be difficult to prove a case of discrimination has occurred, and many people who have been fired from a job may not want to go through the hardships of the process of hiring a lawyer and taking a previous employer to court.
That was the case for me when I lost my job two years ago. I was told by several professionals that I could have sued my employer for discrimination (as well as creating a hostile workplace - but that's a story for another day) and probably won. But after going through something as demoralizing as losing a job I had for 10 years because of panic attacks, which came on from being screamed at in my workplace, the last thing I wanted was to go through a protracted court battle. So, I took what I got, and went away quietly.
Since people with disabilities are already at a disadvantage in society as a whole, I have to wonder at the frequency with which disabled people are either unfairly fired, or just not hired in the first place, with very little recourse against the employer.
Most people, even those who are not disabled, tend not to be very legally savvy. And in at-will employment states, things can be even more complicated. This means, that people who don't know their rights could be having those rights violated and not even be aware. So, possibly less lawsuits for businesses who treat employees unfairly.
According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in 2020 there were 24,324 lawsuits relating to disability discrimination that they investigated.
That being said, there are other forms of discrimination besides being fired, or not hired, although those might be the most obvious. People with disabilities may also be subject to putting up with rude comments from coworkers, being passed up for promotions, raises, or new projects or any number of other forms of discrimination. These other, more subtle, forms of discrimination may lead to job dissatisfaction and people leaving their jobs for another opportunity.
Finding a New Job, and a New Hope.
When I left my job, I was pretty demoralized by the whole situation. I was made to feel like I was stupid, and unable to do anything right. It corroded my self-esteem and self-efficacy. Nevermind the fact that I had a perfect performance review right before all of that happened.
It took some time to find another job, which is a much better fit for me. It also makes me feel better that this time around, I was hired even after applying for the job as a disabled person. I hoped that it would mean two things: that I was taking a job in a more inclusive environment, and that if I was fired for my disability it would mean that I had more recourse since it was documented.
With this new job, I have been lucky to be a part of a great team that accepts me for who I am. People are kind to me and treat me with respect. I am valued for my work performance, instead of being judged for a disability.
The company I work for now is a consulting firm that specializes in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work. DEI training is an important way that workplace discrimination can be combatted. We have multiple trainings every year on promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, and understanding what those terms mean.
Learning to Value Diversity.
In the US workforce, and in our country as a whole, there is a huge diversity in our population. Disability status is just one factor in diversity. There are many other ways that people in our population are diverse. Different people and different populations provide different ideas and viewpoints.
When we discount people because of a disability, we are only seeing one small aspect of who they are as a person. We only see a characature instead of a person. This robs of the talents and abilities that people do have to offer.
Someone with a disability could be a brilliant artist, mathematician, scientist, or any number of other things. When we just see the disability instead of seeing the whole person, then we are discounting any number of wonderful contributions that they have to offer.
Look at Stephen Hawking for example. He was disabled, and also one of the most brilliant minds of our time. His is a story of success and hope, and should be inspiring that people with disabilities have many beautiful gifts to offer to the world.
Being an Ally.
In the workplace, and in the world as a whole, those who aren't disabled can be allies for those who are. They can speak up when they see those with a disability being treated unfairly. This can help to create a more inclusive space for disabled people in our society.
According to the Institute for Public Relations, here are some of the things that allies can do in the workplace. "Coworkers of individuals with invisible disabilities may also be an ally through advocacy behaviors, including:
1.) Educating peers. Research has shown that gaining knowledge about disabilities through awareness and training programs can lead to more favorable attitudes toward persons with disabilities.
2.) Advocating for workplace accommodations. Allies can encourage their employers to integrate workplace accommodations for employees with invisible disabilities. However, allies should be careful doing so, to make sure they do not intentionally “out” a coworker with a disability.
3.) Confronting instances of prejudice. Allies can confront inappropriate reactions to disclosures and can correct assumptions made about the capabilities of individuals with disabilities based on harmful stereotypes.
4.) Calling for better organizational policies. Organizations may adopt more proactive and supportive policies if employees advocate for them."
By being an ally for people with disabilities in the workplace, it is possible to create a more safe and inclusive environment for everyone. It also helps people with disabilities to feel valued for their contribution to their workplace, and really seen as a whole person, instead of just as a disability.
Although there is much work going on in our country to foster inclusiveness of those with disabilities, there is still a way to go to achieve full inclusion. There are many ways to be an ally for those that are disabled in our own sphere of influence.
When you go back to your own workplace, you can reflect on whether people are being treated fairly. You can also talk to your supervisor about National Disability Employment Awareness month, and ask that your workplace can participate.
For more information about what you can do for National Disability Employment Awareness Month 2021, check out the Resources on the Department of Labor Website.
Let me know in the comments what you think, and if there is someone disabled in your life. If there is more that you would like me to cover in future articles, let me know that too!