Lex Frieden, Convener of Elevance Health’s National Advisory Board (NAB) on Improving Healthcare Services for Older Adults and People with Disabilities, shared his thoughts as he reflected on National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).
“In October each year we celebrate national disability employment awareness month (NDEAM). During that time, organizations, and groups all over America recognize achievements of people with disabilities in the workplace and acknowledge employers who actively recruit and hire people with disabilities and who are regarded as models in doing so. Many of these recognitions and acknowledgments occur at events like award luncheons and dinners, and at community and statewide conferences. NDEAM is also the subject of news clips on television and radio, add newspaper and newsletter articles. All the awards, certificates, plaques, and spoken acknowledgements are reinforcing to the individuals and organizations who receive them. The celebrations and recognitions also draw attention to the matter of employment of people with disabilities and workforce participation. It’s all good.
While the designated month has passed this year, many organizations are already planning for NDEAM 2023, and putting it on their calendars. Herein lies an opportunity: If all the organizations that participated in celebrations and recognitions of the disability employment month this year would publicize the efforts of an individual or note a relevant initiative of an employer each month, consider how much additional attention would be brought to the subject. While we’re moving toward our next big celebration, why don’t we drop a few jewels on the road as we go.
Over the years, I have noticed that some ardent disability advocates question the value of celebrating our achievements in employment of people with disabilities when the rate of employment for this demographic is abysmally low. Granted, this observation has significant face value. The rate of employment of people with disabilities in the Unified States, and everywhere else around the world, is far below parity with any other nominal segment of society. Clearly, significantly improved rates of employment by people with disabilities require the implementation of new, more aggressive policies and strategies. But it also requires role models and champions in the workforce, like those workers with disabilities who are recognized during NDEAM. And it requires demonstrations by companies that show others the benefits of implementing visionary, new training, recruitment, employment, and career-building programs aimed at people with disabilities. Examples this year included Covid-motivated work-from-home programs and DEI initiatives that support workers with disabilities.
President George HW Bush said it would take people with disabilities working with the employment community to fully implement and reach the vision of ADA. Bush spoke at disability employment celebrations almost every year from the time he was vice president until the day he died. He always congratulated the program honorees on their achievements. Then he would observe: “Many, many people with disabilities who want to work cannot get jobs; we can do better, we must do better!” President Bush was a very patient and hopeful man. Nevertheless, in one of the last interviews he gave, he acknowledged that he was disappointed by the low rate of employment of people with disabilities. Then he brightened up and said: “We can do better.” Yes, Mr. President, we can.”
During this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), we had the opportunity to reflect and think about the ways we can continue to work towards increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities across the lifespan.
This year we reached out to Disability leaders, Janet LaBreck (Co-Founder and Principal Partner, Synergy Consulting Partners, LLC) and Dante Allen (Executive Director, CalABLE board at State Treasurer’s Office), as well as former Elevance Health Interns, Courtney Felle (Patient Engagement Fellow at EveryLife Foundation for Rare Diseases), Jonathan Kratchman (Data & Policy Analyst at Elevance Health), and Laurin Bixby (PhD Student, University of Pennsylvania) to get their thoughts on disability employment.
How do you feel, if at all, that the COVID-19 pandemic has positively impacted people with disabilities in securing a job or reaching their career goals?
Laurin Bixby: Overall, disabled people continue to be disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, including when it comes to employment. Some disabled people were able to secure a job or reach their career goals because of the expansion of remote work options, something disabled people have been asking for long before the pandemic. However, overall, disabled people disproportionately left the workplace due to inadequate pandemic safety precautions. Additionally, disabled people are often represented in lower wage jobs that required in person work, ultimately forcing many disabled people to leave the workforce to not risk their health and lives. The current assertion that “the pandemic is over” makes it more difficult for disabled people to secure a job or reach their career goals, leaving many disabled people unemployed or forced to risk their lives for work.
Courtney Felle: The remote options made available during the COVID-19 pandemic were life-changing. As someone with a progressive chronic illness, I may sometimes wake up with too much pain and fatigue for everything involved in an in-person workday: commuting on public transit with mobility aids, navigating inaccessible office locations, and ensuring I have safety and support in the event of a health crisis. Continued access to remote work allows me to still have a fulfilling and possible career, and it allows me to share critical insights about the chronic illness community with the organizations where I work.
Janet LaBreck: The pandemic forced employers to modify policies, identify barriers and implement technology strategies for working remotely on the fly. People with disabilities benefited by demonstrating to employers that they can not only work remotely and be productive with the support of assistive technology but, we were also able to leverage expertise, partnerships, and advancements in technology to support employers with navigating numerous options and opportunities to provide accommodations leading to an increase in the number of people with disabilities in the workforce.
Dante Allen: We learned during the pandemic that work is not dependent upon people gathering in a single location to get the job done. This demonstrable proof that productivity can still be high in our own environments means that the barriers like transportation, inaccessible workspaces, or less tolerant community settings, that have kept many people out of the workforce, don’t need to be the limiting factors they have traditionally been. Broader acceptance of telework for the masses will help to normalize similar requests for employees with disabilities.
Jonathan Kratchman: While the pandemic has severely impacted and brought new members into the disability community, it also gave opportunities which I could have never imagined from before. Being able to have a flexible workplace allows for me to take care of myself while juggling duties of work and school.
What keeps you up at night when you think about people with disabilities not being able to get a job when they want one?
Laurin Bixby: I am kept up at night by the thought of disabled people being perceived as a burden and how this can keep people from getting a job when they want one. Negative perceptions of disability lead many nondisabled people to be uncomfortable around disability, preventing them from seeing the power and potential of disabled people. We are creative, persistent, and innovative. Disability is a part of human existence, and disabled people should be a part of the workforce. I am also kept up by the fact that being disabled in this country is extremely expensive, making it even more sickening that so many disabled people who want to get a job are unable to do so in part because of problematic perceptions of disability. I dream of a day when all disabled people can experience pride in their disability and when all employers see disability as an asset, not a burden. Disabled people are not a burden; rather, ableism burdens disabled people.
Courtney Felle: Most of my friends are young adults living with chronic illnesses and rare diseases. I stress living because, with the right treatment and supports, we hope to spend a long time getting older. Surviving as a young adult right now, especially a young adult with complicated and expensive medical needs, is difficult. It is hard to afford staying alive if you don’t have family wealth to fall back on, and sometimes even then. I am constantly in awe of how talented, insightful, and kind my friends are, and how much the world needs to witness and incorporate our perspectives. I want us to access entry-level jobs with life-sustaining income more easily. I want us to live into positions of power and change, in as many different spaces as we can. I want us to live.
Janet LaBreck: The pandemic showed us personally and professionally that we need to continue to challenge self-imposed barriers and resistance to clarifying and implementing solutions to diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility and belonging (DEIAB) as well as taking steps to reassess those policies and practices that force people with disabilities to choose between employment, housing, mental health care, medical and transportation barriers that result in perpetuating economic instability, dependency, and exclusion from the workforce.
Jonathan Kratchman: I fear people with disabilities not being able to obtain a job when they want one inhibits their choices such as where they live, who they associate with, and their choices on their own care. When someone who wants to and can work but is not given the opportunity, they lose their agency. I see that all the time with people I personally know.
As we continue to increase Integrated Competitive Employment and inclusive workplaces – what recommendations would you suggest to policy makers to ensure employment statistics improve for people with disabilities?
Laurin Bixby: Many barriers to employment need to be addressed by policy makers to increase the number of disabled people in the workplace. For example, policy makers need to address discrimination in hiring practices and enforce access to reasonable accommodations which are often lacking despite legal requirements. Additionally, policy makers need to ensure that disabled people have access to necessary supports, such as personal care attendants, regardless of their income and employment status. Currently, far too many people lose access to needed supports when they become employed or increase their earnings. Workplaces need to be more accessible and inclusive for people with all types of disabilities. Further, disabled people need adequate health insurance, flexible schedules, and expansion of remote work options. Importantly, policy makers also need to get rid of subminimum wages so that employers are no longer legally allowed to pay disabled people less than federal minimum wage. Disabled people need to be paid livable wages.
Courtney Felle: Seek out guidance from individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses themselves, who can inform more accurate and holistic data collection. In my own experience, I usually ask: Who is missing entirely from these statistics? (For example, if you are using models that depend on unemployment statistics, challenge your definitions of “unemployed but looking for work” vs. “dropped out of the workforce.” Look for people who have not retired early but have been forced out of the workforce due to illness and/or inaccessibility.) I also consider who has not survived to become counted in the statistics, especially as we still experience large-scale mortality from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Janet LaBreck: As the Co-Founder of Synergy Consulting Partners and former Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, I know how important it is to be prepared for the unexpected. The pandemic taught us that it is more critical than ever for organizations/agencies, the disability community, family members, stakeholders, researchers, and policy makers to continue building on the need to be agile and creative by collaborating with employers, mental health providers, subject matter experts, technology industry, higher education, underserved communities, independent living, transportation, and the business community in an inclusive and meaningful way. There also remains much more work to do to continue building on the need to address the numerous policy, data and technology needs including rules and regulations that can change the paradigm of marginalization by educating, training, and preparing professionals and people with disabilities with a 21st Century approach to promoting innovative tools and solutions that can lead to increased equity, sustainable competitive integrated employment, and economic self-sufficiency.
Jonathan Kratchman: According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than double the unemployment rate of those without disabilities. I would highly recommend companies taking initiatives to hire people with different kinds of disabilities. These can include, but are not limited to dedicated pipelines to employment, mentorship, and internship opportunities.
While we work to publicly honor and recognize NDEAM throughout October it is important to note that increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities is something we need to be doing every day regardless of the month. We know that employment opportunities open doors and change lives. We are committed to working to improve the unemployment rate of people with disabilities.