National Disability Employment Awareness Month: Increasing Access and Opportunity

Blog Post / fizkes
Oct. 29, 2020

“Increasing Access and Opportunity” is this year’s theme for National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Vontisha Fludd talked to advocate Danielle Nicole Drazen about her experience in the workforce, the challenges, and what employers can do to be more inclusive.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and in October, we commemorate the 75th National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). 2020’s theme of “Increasing Access and Opportunity” reminds us that the goal of the ADA was to eliminate barriers for persons with disabilities in their quest for equal quality of life, including within the workforce. Led by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, the observance aims to encourage employers and teams to be more proactive in their efforts to recruit and retain persons with disabilities fully and in a meaningful way.

Workers with disabilities deserve the chance to have a fruitful career and participate in building a strong economy that grows thriving businesses. The best way to ensure this happens is for employers to take responsibility, accountability, and provide pathways that amplify the disability community’s talents; and expand inclusion beyond race and gender. Studies show that companies who embrace inclusivity benefit a great deal. Accenture produced a report on closing the equality gap and enhancing workplace culture. Employers can look to resources such as the Disability Equality Index for guidance. Unfortunately, there continues to be a glaring contrast between the employment of workers with disabilities versus workers without disabilities. This Q&A with Danielle Nicole Drazen sheds light on her experience, both positive and negative within the workplace.

Danielle is a Disabled Jewish member of the LGBTQ+ community. She received her B.S. in American Studies from Charter Oak State College, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude. Danielle received her M.S. from Southern Connecticut State University, where she specialized in Assistive Technology. She is currently working as a Special Education Teacher and Assistive Technology Specialist at a non profit organization that serves south central Connecticut. Her colleagues remark on her super power which is getting others to do things they did not know they wanted to do. Danielle is a member of Alpha Sigma Lambda Honors Society, Council for Exceptional Children, and Connecticut Transition COP’s Assistive Technology Focus Group.

Q. What are some things employers can do to be more inclusive?

Danielle Nicole Drazen: It really helps when employers create a workplace culture of acceptance. This means hiring more people with disabilities so that the makeup of their employees is representative of the population. According to the CDC, 26% of adults (that’s 1 in 4) have a disability. However, our workforce is not representative of this. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates for the Disabled in 2019 were higher for the Disabled than those without disabilities. This statistic remained true across all educational attainment groups. This speaks to employer’s exclusive hiring practices and willingness to provide reasonable accommodations to Disabled employees. Employers can also include Disabled employees in their considerations and their diversity committees. Working remotely has become more ubiquitous with Covid-19, this makes a lot more jobs accessible to Disabled job seekers. I’d really like to see the ability to work remotely available after the pandemic.

Q. In what ways has technology impacted efforts to employ people with disabilities?

Drazen: Assistive technology (AT) has been a huge factor in my career. When I’m provided with AT, it makes tasks accessible to me that would not be otherwise. AT should become part of universal design for workplaces. If we create workspaces and cultures with universal design in mind, it benefits everyone. I recently had a conversation with a coworker who disclosed their disability to me and told me that they were considering disclosing to our employer so that they use technology that would make certain tasks accessible to them. If we include technology in our universal designs then Disabled employees don’t have to make a decision whether to disclose and every employee can benefit from the same supports. Implementing AT as a universal design principle has meant that my coworkers can use the same platforms that are accessible to me and we can work together seamlessly. Without the investment in AT, there can be a lot of barriers to employment and productivity.

Q. What have some of the unexpected challenges been when it comes to your employment experience?

Drazen: There are a number of barriers to employment that have affected me and overall I’ve had to continually advocate for myself and appropriate accommodations.

One of the biggest barriers that people may not think of is getting over the trauma that ableism has caused. As someone with an invisible disability, I was constantly told that I was lazy and just wasn’t trying hard enough. It was even suggested to me that I drop out of school because of my disability. The result of this trauma is imposter syndrome. Even though I am highly educated, I’m still learning to trust that I am qualified. I’ve stayed at jobs that were unaccommodating and a really bad fit because I didn’t think it would be possible for me to get another job.

If we create workspaces and cultures with universal design in mind, it benefits everyone.

Even the interview process can be difficult. As a special education teacher, I typically disclose that I identify as Disabled in my cover letters. I discuss how important it is for students to have a teacher that they can identify with. I’ve been in situations where it was perceived that it would be too expensive to hire me because they would have to offer accommodations.

As a Disabled adult, I’ve aged out of being included, especially in the workplace. I’ve had to completely change to adapt to the workplace around me when I was not given the necessary and appropriate accommodations. I’ve had coworkers that were also special educators have a hard time applying the same best practices to a colleague that they would extend to a student.

Q. In the past few years, many companies and organizations have added “Diversity & Inclusion” to their departments. Can you talk about the importance of having a disability advocate represented in leadership?

Drazen: Our conversations on diversity and inclusion are important. One thing that can be really frustrating about being Disabled is people presuming incompetence and always doing things for you. There still exists misconceptions that disabilities are a burden and Disabled people are inspiring, brave, and courageous heroes just for living with a disability. The Disabled are capable of advocating for themselves and just like everyone else; we deserve a seat at the table. A Disabled advocate can help to provide a different perspective, educate others about the different models of disability and ableism. A Disabled advocate can offer first-hand experiences and through their advocacy, can help other Disabled employees be more productive and feel satisfied with their jobs As with students being able to identify with their teachers, it’s important to have people in leadership positions with whom you can identify. The most accommodating, accessible, and welcoming place I worked at had Disabled members of the leadership team.

While there’s still a long road ahead, striving towards the advancement of people with disabilities can be achieved in a myriad of ways. A few things to consider:

  • Become a mentor or coach to youth with disabilities.
  • Patronize and or refer business owners who identify as a person with a disability.
  • When onboarding new employees, the Job Accommodation Network suggests that employers “provide alternate formats (e.g., large print, Braille) of all necessary work-related documents including benefits information, employee manuals and policies, and professional development materials, as needed.” Making accommodations for accessibility resources must be as common as ordering new business cards. You can find more in this toolkit.
  • Support and share the What Can You Do Campaign.

Contributions made by people with disabilities in the workplace are a gift to this country. Routine reinforcement of the commitment to inclusion must be embedded in the DNA of all companies and organizations. It’s on us as a nation to lead the charge and shift the culture not only in October but 365 days a year.

For the next few months, the American Association of People with Disabilities, with support from the New Practice Lab, is conducting qualitative research into how people with disabilities are experiencing the pandemic. This blog post is the first of more that the New Practice Lab will publish in collaboration with AAPD.