October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a time each year when we as a nation celebrate the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities and assess our progress toward building a workforce that welcomes the skills and talents of all qualified individuals.
The theme for this year’s observance is “Because We Are EQUAL to the Task,” and its inherent message is one that I, as a person with a disability, was fortunate to receive early and often in my life. Today, helping more people understand it is the crux of my work as head of the Office of Disability Employment Policy. Every day of every month, my dedicated colleagues and I educate folks about workplace policies and practices that promote equality and full access for people with disabilities.
And what are those policies and practices? According to many employers who have demonstrated exemplary leadership in hiring, retaining and advancing people with disabilities, they’re no different than the policies and practices that promote success for all employees.
The key is taking disability off of what I sometimes call the “special shelf” and instead focusing on the fundamental goal of productivity. Like all people, those of us with disabilities need the right tools and work environments to do our jobs. Over the years, I’ve heard many employers express trepidation about these “accommodations”—the perhaps imperfect way they are termed in legal parlance. Some employers assume accommodations are complicated and expensive, but their fears are unfounded.
In fact, a report released recently by the ODEP-funded Job Accommodation Network revealed that most (58 percent) of job accommodations for employees with disabilities cost nothing, while the typical cost of the rest is only $500—an outlay that most employers report pays for itself multiple-fold in the form of reduced insurance and training costs and increased productivity.
So, in response to employers’ misconceptions, I like to call accommodations “productivity tools,” because that’s really what they are. From technology to flexible work arrangements, accommodations are something most employers already provide employees—with or without disabilities—every day. Just think about it. Those lights you turn on when you enter the room? They increase productivity for a lot of people, but workers like me don’t need them. That chair you use to sit at your desk? Helpful for many, but some folks come with their own chairs. Those smart phones you use to stay in touch while away from your desk? They’re productivity tools (aka “accommodations”) whether you identify as a person with a disability or not.
The key to making the American workforce more inclusive of people with disabilities is making the conversation about disability and employment more inclusive. And that’s the essence of NDEAM. It’s a time to celebrate and educate. It’s also a time to elevate our thinking about whom we include in a disability context, and how we think about disability issues. Because only then can we ensure that more qualified individuals have the chance to demonstrate that they are EQUAL to the task.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.
NDEAM is led at the national level by ODEP, but its true spirit lies in the many creative events and activities that take place at the grassroots level across the nation each year. There is something everyone can do. For ideas on how employers, schools, community organizations and others can participate, visit our website: 31 Days of NDEAM.