Disability Employment Awareness Month: A 78-Year Long Fight for Inclusivity
In 1945, Congress recognized the employment needs and contributions of individuals with disabilities by declaring the first week of October as National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. In 1962, the word “physically” was removed to include non-physical disabilities, and in 1988, the week was expanded to a month and renamed National Disability Employment Awareness Month. 78 years later, we are still fighting for the same awareness and inclusivity that inspired that initial declaration.
Despite the progress made since 1945, many of the issues faced by individuals with disabilities in the workforce persist today. Stereotypes, misconceptions, and systemic barriers still influence policies, processes, and hiring practices in employment today. We can’t make significant change if the perception and understanding of the disability community continues to be led by stigma instead of fact. This blog aims to challenge some of the most deeply held and pervasive stigmas impacting disability employment today.
Stigma: Disabled employees are less competent or capable.
Accurate View: Disability does not inherently correlate with a lack of competence or capability. Even if an employee lacks capability in one way (all employees do), it does not mean that they lack the ability to do the job. For example, many adults who do not speak verbally are incredibly intelligent and capable. Their skills and value become apparent once you recognize that communicating verbally is only one manner of communication, and does not diminish their ability to communicate overall.
Stigma: Disabled employees are not as productive.
Accurate View: Productivity is not determined by disability, but the accessibility of the environment. With appropriate accommodations and an inclusive work environment, disabled employees can be just as, if not more, productive than their not yet disabled counterparts.
Stigma: Disabled employees need constant assistance.
Accurate View: Every employee needs assistance at times. Employees who need assistance tied to disability should be viewed no differently. Employees with disabilities who do require disability related assistance often know exactly what they need, and can act independently when that need is accommodated for.
Stigma: Disability is always apparent.
Accurate View: Many disabilities are not apparent to others. Chronic pain, neurodivergence, mental health disorders, some neurological conditions, and various disabilities impacting internal systems may not be apparent. It is vital to not make assumptions about someone's abilities or need based on appearance alone.
Stigma: Accommodations are only necessary when an employee is struggling or underperforming.
Accurate View: Accommodations are not solely for struggling employees, and success does not negate the potential need for accommodations. Disabilities and related needs may not always be obvious, but that does not make the need any less legitimate. Requiring an employee to struggle before believing their accommodation need not only sets the employee up to fail, but also hurts the business.
Stigma: Accommodations for disabled employees are costly and burdensome.
Accurate View: Many accommodations are simple and cost nothing. Even those that do incur a cost have a median one-time charge of $300.
Stigma: Employees will try to cheat the system.
Accurate View: While some people may try to cheat any system, there is such a small percentage of employees who make up disabilities or accommodation need that it isn’t worth prioritizing. Prioritizing employee needs while building in safeguards is more effective than prioritizing proving the legitimacy of each claim in depth before supporting employee needs.
Stigma: Hiring disabled employees increases legal risk.
Accurate View: It is not the hiring of disabled employees that increases legal risk, but the lack of legally sound processes and disability inclusive environments that increases legal risk. Avoiding legal risk by not hiring employees with disabilities is a legal risk in itself.
Stigma: Disabled employees are a burden to employers.
Accurate View: Disabled employees are no more a burden than what comes along with employing any human. Employees with disabilities can be a unique asset to employers as many disabled humans are dedicated, resilient, and possess problem-solving skills developed through navigating a world not always designed with their needs in mind.
After 78 years, it is time to go beyond awareness, and to take real action. That starts with challenging and correcting our incorrect perceptions around disability employment.
Julie Harris is a LinkedIn top voice in disability advocacy. She’s a subject matter expert in disability inclusion, reasonable accommodations in the workplace, and process improvement. She works with corporations to improve their disability inclusion efforts, and with employees to improve their self-advocacy in the workplace. She has worked with many companies including Microsoft, Prologis, Dell, and American Express, as well as thousands of individuals.