Recognizing Disability as Part of the Workforce Equity Equation

by: Amy Share, Grants Manager at Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont

Throughout October, Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont joins employers, government agencies and nonprofits to celebrate the contributions made by workers with disabilities as part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This year’s theme for NDEAM, “Disability: Part of the Equity Equation,” recognizes the important role people with disabilities play in a diverse and inclusive American workforce.

I do not know life without disabilities. I had a stroke before I was born, causing right side hemiplegia (my right arm and leg are weaker than my left) and a learning disability. Thanks in large part to my parents, teachers, advocates, and mentors, I have grown up to be an active participant in the workforce. However, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that just over 22.5% of Americans with disabilities participate in the labor force. That compares with more than 68% of workers in the general population who are working.

Without programs like the Americans with Disabilities Act and NDEAM, my life would look very different. Due to my developmental and physical disability, I have had to rely on an inclusive and supportive work environment to ensure success. When people with disabilities are supported, they are a dependable and valuable part of the workforce, with higher rates of employee retention, leading to lower hiring and training costs.

It is important for us to understand ways that employers can do their part to support their employees with disabilities and create an inclusive experience at work. Some ideas to build a more inclusive work environment include:

  • Review your company’s policies to ensure they convey a commitment to an inclusive workplace accommodation and culture.
  • Consider conducting training to ensure they understand their role in fostering an inclusive workplace culture. Such training may include a review of relevant policies, including the process for providing reasonable accommodations.
  • Effectively educate employees on your company’s commitment to disability inclusion. You can also contact local disability organizations to see if they offer workplace training programs.

Employers are often concerned about the education and qualification levels of those with disabilities (Bonaccio et al., 2019). Improving relationships between employers and work-placement organizations can greatly increase the overall focus on creating supportive workplace environments for people with disabilities. Companies that championed people with disabilities outperformed others —driving profitability and shareholder returns (Accenture, 2018).

As businesses have implemented diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, activities around disability have oftentimes continued to be excluded from the narrative. It has been throughout my career that people with disabilities are seen and heard. When my disability was disclosed during the hiring process, I wanted to make sure my needs would be met and supported. Because Goodwill believes everyone, no matter their ability, deserves equitable access to opportunity, our approach is grounded in building pathways that help individuals overcome obstacles. 

Goodwill career navigators can help overcome this by providing on-site job training and teaching social skills, and educating employers on equitable management, helping to create natural supports within the workplace. Career coaches from placement organizations have been shown to be the best factor when bridging the gap between employers and a successful workplace for individuals with disabilities (Ellenkamp et al., 2016).

As we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness month, we must remember that there are many different types of disabilities, such as cognitive, physical, mental health, learning, hearing, seeing, or communication impairments. People of all races, genders, sexual orientations, nationalities, religions, and socioeconomic status can have a disability. This is why NDEAM highlights the importance of inclusive policies and practices to ensure that all Americans who want to work can, and that they have access to services that will enable them to do so. We believe all should be working to build an equitable and inclusive workplace year-round.

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