Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of employers at the Diversity, Inc. Magazine Conference which focused on how diversity-management best practices can be used to increase employee engagement. My focus was on the impact of stereotypes about people with disabilities and what they can do to improve employment for this community.
Think about the stereotypes that we have placed on people with disabilities in the workplace — that people do not want to work, cannot work, or are somehow not as whole or complete as everyone else. As diverse individuals and communities, and/or people who care about diversity, it is critical that we recognize that our histories and experiences are individual and unique, but also recognize that they are interwoven and interconnected. Not only do we make up one another’s communities through the multiple identities many of us have, but many of us share a common experience of discrimination and exclusion through having been labeled by society as “other” or somehow different from what is “normal” or “desirable”.
Some stereotyped concerns that employers and coworkers have about hiring workers with disabilities are: 1) Fear of having to do both their own work and the work of people with disabilities, 2) Fear that having people with disabilities in the workplace makes co-workers feel sad, and 3) Feeling like one is” walking on eggshells” because a colleague may say something inappropriate or incorrect.
Whether we want to or not, people with disabilities bring countless stereotypes to work with them. The best method to break down stereotypes in the workplace is to hire people with disabilities, because attitude is caught, not taught.
It should be expected that people with disabilities will be a part of the workplace. It must become standard practice. This is the only way to combat low expectations; when you combine low expectations with stereotypes, many opportunities can be closed off.
I should know; my career as a world traveling disability policy advocate and as an Assistant Secretary in the Office of Disability Employment Policy would have never occurred if I had taken the uncreative, stereotypical advice years ago of my vocational rehabilitation counselor, who wanted me to assemble locks in a lock factory. He thought that was all a blind person was capable of. Imagine that…
I left the audience with an important message and a challenge. The message is to remember that policies that benefit people with disabilities are going to one day benefit you or someone you know or love. It is not about “us” and “them” anymore – this is about all of us. And the challenge is to step out and be model employers of people with disabilities. Strive not only to make Diversity Inc’s Top 10 Companies for People with Disabilities next year, but also step out in front and be the leaders in the company, industry, or agency you work in. Above laws, regulations, or company policies, it takes heart and the willingness to take risks to be a true change-leader.
I encourage you to be change leaders, and speak up to combat discrimination in your communities.
Ed. note: Kathy Martinez is the Assistant Secretary in the Office of the Disability Employment Policy.