I love coming to work each day. Why? Because I’m able to do so fully.
What do I mean by that? I mean that my employer encourages employees to bring their “whole selves” to the job. This makes the department a great place to work, because of course none of us has just one side; we all have many diverse factors that make us who we are. And smart organizations foster strong corporate cultures welcoming of all of them.
Just take me. I am a person with a disability; I am blind. And clearly that aspect of my identity adds valuable perspective to my work. But my disability is only one part of who I am. I’m also a Latina. I’m a lesbian. I’m a mother, daughter and sister. I’m a voracious reader. I’m a drummer.
These additional perspectives — all of which I am proud to bring with me to work each day — also benefit my employer. Yes, even the drumming; it reinforces the importance of extracurricular “connecting activities” in helping youth with disabilities effectively transition to adulthood.
This is the spirit underpinning the updates to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act that took effect earlier this year. Enforced by the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, these updates require that federal contractors invite applicants and employees to self-identify as people with disabilities. Specifically, this invitation must be extended to applicants both pre- and post-offer and to employees every five years. It is important to note that such invitations do not conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act when — and this is critical — the question is being asked for affirmative action purposes.
Given these changes, it’s obviously imperative that employers covered by Section 503 make it safe for employees to disclose if they have a disability. That way, they can be counted, and progress toward goals can be measured. But, I’d argue that fostering a disclosure-friendly corporate culture is a smart business strategy for any employer. And the research backs me up. As one example, a study conducted by DePaul University and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity revealed that employers who hire people with disabilities experienced benefits in terms of employee tenure, absenteeism and job performance.
So, how can employers promote such a culture that encourages voluntary self-identification? There is no one thing, but there are commonalities among organizations that get it right — best practices that foster a disability-friendly workplace and that also can help contractors achieve the aims of Section 503. One example is to make a company’s commitment highly visible. For example, posted policies, like diversity statements, should specify that a company values the inclusion of people with disabilities. Another tip is to create employee resource or affinity groups to promote peer-to-peer support. Companies can also demonstrate their commitment through model policies on accessible technology and reasonable accommodations.
Clearly, employers want the best from their employees. And key to getting it is workplace policies and practices that encourage people to bring their best selves to work. When they aren’t able to do so, the perspective they can add is diminished. At the Labor Department, we want all of America’s workers to be encouraged to come to work fully.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.