Op-Ed: Employers’ diversity and equity efforts often overlook people with disabilities

Small Business

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2020 brought forward a crucial national conversation centered on the need for companies – from Main Street to Wall Street – to look inward at hiring practices, employment policies, recruitment and other aspects of the employment process to expand opportunities for diversity, equity and inclusion. It seems every company in the United States, from Google to Pepsi to the family-owned small business down your street, is exploring DEI strategies and tactics to attract new employees, retain existing employees and appeal to a wider customer base.

You can’t log into LinkedIn or Indeed without viewing a new job post for an executive dedicated to internally championing DEI. You can’t scroll through Instagram or Facebook without coming across a new consumer-directed social media campaign like L’Oréal’s new partnership with the NAACP. And you can’t shop at your favorite store without noticing the latest social justice philanthropy initiative like Crate & Barrel’s new 15 Percent Pledge to ensure 15% of its products and collaborations are represented by Black businesses, artists and designers by 2024.

However, as our country continues the necessary conversation around DEI, and organizations and companies further deploy creative strategies to address systemic problems, we are overlooking the most underemployed and unemployed segment of our entire U.S.-based population – people with disabilities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61 million adults live with a disability in the U.S. – that is, 26% or about 1 in 4 adults. In 2019, the Department of Labor reported that 7.3% of people with disabilities were unemployed – about twice as high as the rate for those without a disability.

Where are the consumer-directed campaigns featuring people with visible (and invisible) disabilities?

Where are the social justice campaigns to support products and businesses owned by people with disabilities?

And, most importantly, why aren’t more companies employing people with disabilities?

Despite Congress passing the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, and subsequent amendments in 2008, systemic problems continue to pose significant structural, economic, educational and regulatory barriers for employers and people with disabilities alike.

The poverty rate for adults with disabilities (27%) is more than twice the rate of adults with no disability (12%). Some will say the reason for this is complicated. We disagree.

People with disabilities are forced to live within a health-care and benefits system that was designed in the 1960s, when people with disabilities were institutionalized, often from birth. Even in 2021, for a person with a disability to qualify for benefits under entitlement programs, the only option for health care and services is their state Medicaid program (51 different bureaucratic programs that are complex and cumbersome for individuals, family members and caregivers).

People with disabilities must also navigate a complex, limited employment sector that is rooted in outdated low expectations and stereotypes – limited options that look more like the 1980s than the 2020s.

Many people with disabilities are living in poverty because their only government support (that is, Medicaid and Social Security) is not specifically designed to support their disability. Individuals are limited in terms of what they can earn (approximately $735 per month) and how much they can save at any given time ($2,000). These means-tested program qualifications are based on 1964 income measures.

Fifty-seven years later, it’s time to address these outmoded systems and programs. It’s time to decouple the poor from the disability community and start to create incentives to move people with disabilities into jobs – and careers.

Many people with disabilities can and want to work, and many can work effectively with minimal assistance. In many cases, applying for government support designed to help those on low incomes and living in poverty is the only way people with disabilities can survive because they lack the experience, opportunity, encouragement and support needed to move them into sustainable employment.

Every organization, including government, can help redress this situation and help the largest, unemployed population of individuals living in the U.S. today:

  • Create a co-designed national disability insurance program focused on self-direction by the individual and their family or caregivers.
  • Lift the income and asset limitations for people with disabilities so they can work, live and fulfill their own career passions without the fear of loss of benefits.
  • Employers can make their workplaces truly diverse, equitable and inclusive by modifying their recruitment strategies, widening their talent pool, offering an apprenticeship program that enables partnerships with special education programs and local disability organizations, and ensuring their goods and services – and the way they market them – speak to a broader audience.

As we move into 2021 and begin the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, it makes sense to think about ways to maximize workforce participation, and a strong focus on DEI is critical to positioning the economy for recovery and growth. And as we discuss what DEI success should look like in the U.S., it’s time for policymakers and employers to step up and do their part to tap into the most unemployed population in this country – people with disabilities.

Sara Hart Weir is a leading nonprofit executive and expert on disability policy in the United States. Weir is the former president and CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society, co-founder of the CEO Commission for Disability Employment and most recently, the 2020 primary runner-up in Kansas’ Third U.S. Congressional district.

Nicholas Wyman is a future work expert, author, speaker and president of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation. He has been LinkedIn’s #1 Education Writer of the Year, too, and written an award-winning book, Job U, a practical guide to finding wealth and success by developing the skills companies actually need. Wyman has an MBA and has studied at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship.

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