It’s National Employment Disability Awareness Month – let’s stop all the excuses.
Throughout October the U.S. Department of Labor is “celebrating” 70 years of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Seven decades is an awfully long time to be trying to convince employers that people with disabilities add value to the workplace.
This is not a topic that should be relegated to a month of annual consciousness raising, however well intended. As my colleague Chris Pierson recently wrote, the employment gap between Americans with disabilities and those without stands at more than 40 percentage points and people with disabilities who are employed are generally stuck in low-skill, low-pay jobs.
Due to a federal mandate to phase out the “sheltered workshop” system that has paid people with disabilities sub-par wages for sub-par work for decades, state and federal agencies are urging employers to hire people with disabilities. Meanwhile, at ICS, hiring people with disabilities has been critical to our success and growth.
People with disabilities welcome here
At ICS, people with disabilities work throughout the organization, in jobs ranging from senior vice presidents to entry level positions.
“We simply would not be able to serve our clients as well as we do without employing staff members who have disabilities,” says ICS Chief Operating Officer Regina Estela-Martinez. “They bring a high level of disability competence to the organization, constantly challenging us to improve our services and create innovative programs to best meet our members’ needs.”
“This is my first time working in an organization where people with disabilities are everywhere, from entry-level positions to leadership and everything in between,” says our Senior Vice President for Human Resources Lisa Feliciano. “It feels good. A lot of employers say they are open to hiring people with disabilities, and have it in their equal opportunity statement, but at ICS it’s real. And it gives us a bigger pool of qualified candidates, which is definitely a competitive advantage.”
In their own words
Despite their qualifications, many ICS staff members with disabilities have faced barriers to employment that they attribute to bias and fear.
Esteban Santos (pictured left), who was born with spina bifida, graduated from Brooklyn’s South Shore High School as part of the first New York City class where people with disabilities went to a regular high school with other teens. As someone who has competed in five New York City Marathons and a half dozen other races, he found job hunting a much tougher test of his endurance.
“I’ve always wanted to be a productive part of society and I’ve battled with this all my life,” Mr. Santos says. “A lot of what I experienced as a young adult was exploitation. A guy gave me a month’s worth of work and paid me thirty dollars. This was in New York. They would just send me to these places to make brooms, pack envelopes, in a factory setting.”
Mr. Santos has worked at ICS since 2002, starting out in community relations and later moving into the document management unit. “This job means a whole lot to me,” he says. It changed my life because I’ve always wanted to help other people like me who had a disability but who didn’t know how to find services that they really needed.”
What does he think keeps employers from hiring people with disabilities? “I think they are just afraid,” he says. “They are afraid they might have to do something just a little bit differently to accommodate us.”
“Most of the accommodations we’ve made at ICS have been widening a workspace or raising a desktop so a wheelchair fits underneath,” HR’s Ms. Feliciano says. “Some employees use speech recognition software. Some use headsets because they don’t have mobility in their hands or arms. We have a social worker in the field who is deaf, so we supplied her with special phone equipment so that she can retrieve her messages. Some employees need their personal care assistants with them at the office so we accommodate that. There’s no mystery to accommodating employees with disabilities – it’s a matter of prioritizing diversity and changing attitudes,” she added.
“People really need to be educated,” says grievance specialist Kim Yancey (pictured left), who was born with Blount’s Disease and uses a wheelchair. “We need to get to a point where people with disabilities are truly integrated with the able bodied community because right now there is a lot of ignorance that affects our employment opportunities.”
Berna Ellison, another ICS employee, has faced this many times. “I have Muscular Dystrophy, which runs in my family,” she says. “When I was looking for work a job counselor told me not to ever reveal to prospective employers that I was in a wheelchair. But when I arrived for an interview, I was ignored. Then they told me there was no job opportunity for me there. I have had so many interviews where this happened to me.
“My experience is that once an employer sees you with a disability, they don’t see you as a person, as a potential employee. They just see the disability. But I am a productive person. My husband calls me a workaholic! People need to open their minds because people with disabilities should have the same opportunities as everyone else.
“Working means a lot,” Ms. Ellison adds. Being independent is the most important thing, earning money, being able to buy what I want. It’s an amazing feeling to work the same way as other people, keep busy, and take care of my house and my daughter. That makes me feel very, very comfortable.”
ICS intake and enrollment coordinator Edwin Ramirez (pictured below) sustained a spinal cord injury more than two decades ago in his home country, Peru.
“When I came to the United States I went to a technical institute to study IT but it was not easy to get a job so I became a street vendor,” Mr. Ramirez explains. “When the economy went bad and sales went down I decided to look for a job. You have to pay rent and bills so I needed to work. I never received SSI or any help from the government.
“This job is a lot of things for me. Mainly, I feel part of something. When you get a job and the opportunity to do something for yourself, this is a big thing. I feel thankful for this chance to prove myself and continue doing something with my life.
“My wife is happy. My daughter, Andrea, sometimes comes to the office to see what I’m doing. It’s nice because she says, ‘Daddy, you’re in a wheelchair and you’re working,’ and I say, ‘Yes, it’s good to work.
“People with disabilities just need one thing,” Mr. Ramirez adds, “opportunity.”