October is my favorite month of the year, and not just for the candy and costumed hilarity around Berkeley, but because it’s such a great month for people with disabilities. Not only did we just finish our second annual Disability History Week here in California, it’s also National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a time in which I really focus on my future beyond college and higher education (gulp…). NDEAM reminds me of the possibilities for my future, and on a larger scale, the possibilities of my friends, family members and peers with disabilities.
It’s ironic that I speak of the future so much when talking about NDEAM since it’s actually one of America’s oldest traditions around advancing hiring equity for people with disabilities. It was begun by the Truman administration over 60 years ago, has undergone three name changes, but always had the same spirit, to make a fully inclusive workplace — one where everyone is recognized for their ability every single day.
To me, NDEAM represents a torch that needs passing, a goal that needs completing; people with disabilities have faced and conquered many obstacles to enter into the workplace, but we’re not finished yet. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is far too high, 16.1%. And over two-thirds of people with disabilities aren’t attached to the labor force at all, which is a very large and sad number.
I think part of the problem lies in the misconception that people with disabilities can be a drain on the bottom line of a company, especially in tough economic times,. However, a person with a disability can be a great asset to a business, and not just through tax credits and good publicity. People with disabilities can demonstrate an incredible work ethic, problem solving skills and positive attitude. Even things such as accommodations to allow a person with a disability to work at their optimal potential are inexpensive (most cost no money, and the average cost is $500) and can improve the productivity of an entire staff.
People with disabilities in my age group need to continue to excel in school, but we also need to be ready — ready to step out of our comfort zones, think about our futures and think about what we want for ourselves. Oftentimes, getting to college is seen as the Promised Land, but there’s a whole world beyond higher education and we need to be ready to take on as well.
This summer I served as an intern at the Office of Disability Employment Policy in Washington, DC, where I got a firsthand look at many possibilities for my future. They were eye-opening; it turns out the world of work is different than the activism experiences I had in the past. I hope to return to DC and I will be ready, I will take advantage, and I expect my peers with disabilities to do the same.
NDEAM embodies that goal for me: finding a good future and making a difference in my life, and in the minds of employers. I think that having a career is the highest form of activism for a person with a disability.
Editor’s Note: The author, Hamza Jaka is a former intern in the Office of Disability Employment Policy. He is currently an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley.