The Driving Force for the Future: Celebrating NDEAM with Inclusion

By Sara Porcaro | Oct 13, 2021
Employment, COVID-19, Rhode Island, Disabilities, Work, Accessibility, NDEAM, Local Business

It's almost the end of 2021. The pandemic is nearing its second year, and as vaccination numbers rise, as people get back to their rhythms, there's still a lingering few questions looming over people. One of those questions, naturally, is about the professional world--namely, what it'll look like in the future. With more work-life balance afforded through remote work, strong demands for better pay and working conditions, and accommodations that have made countless jobs more accessible to talented, dedicated, and valuable professionals in the I/DD community, the way we view the workplace, and what's fair for workers, has changed considerably. As it continues to evolve, there's no better time to reflect on that than National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) this October, with the theme "America's Recovery: Powered By Inclusion"!
NDEAM is recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor and has its roots beginning in 1945, where October's first week was officially declared "National Employ the Physically Handicapped" week by Congress. Since then, the concept--and the energy behind it--have continued to evolve, becoming ever more inclusive of all disabilities. With the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passing decades later in 1990--a piece of legislation inspired by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973--the discrimination of workers with disabilities in all stages of employment, from hiring and training to advancement and other opportunities. Yet still, as employers look for qualified professionals to build their brands and businesses with, the I/DD community is one that is still heavily overlooked. In fact, in 2020, the percentage of people with disabilities in the workforce decreased, from 19.3% to 17.9%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics's report released this February. The pandemic surely had an impact on this decrease, but with over 80% of the I/DD community out of the workforce even beforehand, one thing is clear: businesses are missing out on a huge pool of qualified talent, and not for the reasons one might think.
"Most often, we assume employers are discriminating against people with disabilities," says CEO of Able Opportunities, Inc., Jennifer White, "but more often than not, employers don't see models that fit into a business model. we're stuck in a capacity model where the employer needs time and money to do the right thing; our job, then, is to increase business-minded tools that pair well with an employer's bottom line. Infusing services with technological savvy elevates an individual's marketable skill."
In fact, during the pandemic, one of the most widely available technological accommodations--one that became necessary for a huge pool of jobs in teaching, marketing, and more--was the simple infrastructure needed to allow people to work from home. From BBC News came the story of Ruby Jones, a professional with a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, who found that the ability to work from home afforded her the chance to work full time "without exhausting [herself] to the point of hospitalization." Her hashtag, #MyAccessiblePandemic, soon became flooded with stories of people who, thanks to online school and work-from-home accommodations, saw boosts to their productivity, success, and accomplishments that hadn't been viable in traditional on-site work and school models. The online tools so many had to quickly adapt to while sheltering in place could have been used all this time to bring talented professionals like Ruby Jones into the workforce. Now, it's no wonder employees of all abilities are demanding these tools stay--and no wonder that countless employers are happy to do it.
"These days, more employers are starting to learn how to accommodate applicants with disabilities," notes Senior Manager of Supported Employment, Danna Spencer, from Skills for Rhode Island's Future. "They want more diverse workforces, and they're educating themselves on how to support applicants that can be fantastic fits for their teams."
The benefits of hiring members of the I/DD community, too, are far more than many employers realize. It isn't a charitable act to hire someone with a disability; it's a smart business move to hire a long-term, driven, and skilled professional that simply requires some accommodation to participate with the team, and it's backed up with research from several sources. One source , "A Systematic Review of the Benefits of Hiring People with Disabilities," is a study published in 2018 that determined hiring members of the I/DD community improved business profitability and gave them a competitive edge, as well as created a more inclusive work culture. Businesses experienced less turnover, better employee loyalty, higher levels of innovation, better customer loyalty and satisfaction, and more as the teams became more diverse and accommodating. Naturally, the benefits also extend to the professionals with disabilities, as they gain social connections through work communities, enhanced self-confidence, and a source of income and independence--helping these professionals further take control of their own lives.
This October, we're celebrating the many professionals with disabilities working hard and succeeding in their roles. However, while NDEAM is a great moment to recognize and raise awareness for the many incredible professionals who are in and still looking to join the workforce, Perspectives remains committed to the year-round work of supporting individuals in finding the career paths they love. As we head towards 2022, we look forward to seeing how the labor market evolves--and the great places that conversations on inclusion, accessibility, and diversity can continue to take us. The theme for NDEAM this year is one that makes a powerful point: our post-pandemic recovery is not only already in the works, but also made possible by breaking down barriers and creating workspaces where people of all abilities are included!


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