Every October, we recognize the contributions that individuals with disabilities make to the workplace through National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
This year, the Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy chose the theme “Disability: Part of the Equity Equation,” which aligns with the administration’s larger plan to identify and reduce barriers to historically underserved communities.
Equity means meeting individuals or communities where they are and that often involves providing additional resources when needed to help level the playing field.
One in four adults in the United States have some type of disability, according to the CDC. Based on 2021 Census data released in September, 42.5 million Americans with disabilities make up 13% of the civilian population. Of those with disabilities, nearly 19% are Hispanic and almost 12% are African American. In 2021, about 19.1 percent of individuals who have a disability were employed, up from 17.9 percent in 2020.
Furthermore, as noted in a recent Bloomberg article, “About 5.6 million disabled men and women ages 16-64 were employed in August—a slight dip from June’s record but still historically elevated, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The group’s labor-force participation rate—the share of the population that is working or looking for work—was 37.6% in August, up nearly five percentage points from April 2020 and hovering close to a record in data back to 2008, according to an analysis by the Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire.”
Historically, individuals with disabilities have struggled to find and maintain employment. Generally, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities is more than double that of those without disabilities. Additionally, the pandemic disproportionately affected this segment of the population, causing unemployment rates to increase. Factoring in race, age, and socioeconomic status in addition to disability status, further complicates the likelihood of obtaining employment.
While individuals with disabilities said their disability was the main barrier to obtaining employment, other challenges factored in as well, including insufficient education or training; lack of transportation; and the need for accommodations on the job, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey.
This year marks the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals based on disability. While considerable progress has been made toward employing individuals with disabilities, there’s still more work to be done.
In an effort to make forward progress, here are a few action items for employers to consider:
Actively recruit individuals with disabilities. The first step toward making your company more inclusive is seeking out and hiring applicants with disabilities. Also, following ADA requirements, which includes ensuring the building is accessible and that the company website is Section 508 compliant (especially if the job application is online), will help attract a more diverse group of individuals, such as those with vision impairments.
Tailor onboarding, training, and overall business practices. Once you make the hire, provide additional assistance the employee may need to become familiar with the company and enhance their performance. Also, implement policies that will foster higher retention rates and increase employee satisfaction.
Be patient. A key piece of acknowledging individuals with disabilities means being empathetic. You do not have to understand what it means to have a disability; however, as an employer, you should understand that everyone should receive the resources or accommodations they need to earn a living and succeed at their job.
Be open to learning and help remove the stigma. Do not limit a person or define them by their disability. Instead, educate yourself about the person’s disability and ask how their disability individually impacts them and what the company can do to help if it appears his or her performance is being affected. Do not assume how a person will respond or perform when asked to do certain tasks. If there is an issue with performance, consider switching job responsibilities if possible.
Consider providing flexible work options. Employed persons who have a disability are more likely to be self-employed than those who do not have a disability. Companies should consider remote or hybrid work policies.
Make Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion a year-round commitment. Employers should allocate time, effort, and resources toward making DE&I and accessibility goals a reality through careful research and planning. Also, accept that shifts in workplace culture toward a more positive and diverse environment may initially require some adjusting but may be advantageous and are a worthwhile investment in the long term.