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National Disability Employment Awareness Month Calls Attention To Underrepresented Workforce

By Karen Rosen | Oct. 21, 2020, 9:30 a.m. (ET)

Clark Rachfal and David Swanson compete in the Men's Road Race B at the 2011 Parapan American Games on Nov. 19, 2011 in Guadalajara, Mexico. 

 

Paralympian Clark Rachfal is well aware of job interviews that go nowhere.

“You look great on paper,” he said, “but as soon as you enter that room with a white cane, a guide dog or a wheelchair, you can just feel the energy change.”

“And you get the ‘We’ll call you back. We’ll be touch,’ and you know exactly how that’s going to go.’”

Rachfal, a para-cyclist who is the Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs at American Council of the Blind, is among those working to change that outcome for the better.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, celebrating the skills and creativity that people with disabilities bring to America‘s workplaces while reminding employers to utilize inclusive hiring practices.

“It’s important to have National Disability Employment Awareness Month because people with disabilities are still severely underrepresented in the workforce,” said Rachfal, who competed in tandem cycling at the Paralympic Games London 2012. “Some of that is implicit and unintentional bias and in other cases it’s employers placing low expectations upon what people with disabilities are capable of doing.”

As of July 2018, only 29 percent of Americans of working age (between 16 and 64) with disabilities participated in the workforce, compared with 75 percent of Americans without a disability, according to a 2018 study by Accenture called “Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage.”

In 2017, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was more than twice that for those without a disability, 9.2 percent vs. 4.2 percent.

The study pointed out that there are 15.1 million people of working age living with disabilities in the United States.

“It sounds so easy - just hire more people with disabilities. Just do it, right?” said Susan Katz, Senior Talent Attraction Partner at Biogen, a Boston-based biotech company, and a wheelchair basketball gold medalist at the Paralympic Games Athens 2004.

But it is so much more complicated.

“There are a lot barriers earlier in life that prevent people with disabilities from being able to get employment in regards to access to education,” said Katz. “And transportation can be a huge obstacle.”

She said that during the pandemic, with many people working remotely, employers have seen that workers can be just as productive from home.

“It is something that has opened a lot of eyes,” Katz said. “It’s helping people understand this might be a reasonable accommodation for those who have disabilities. This person is fully capable. There’s no reason not to hire them.”

Katz, who was recently named Global Co-chair of AccessAbility, Biogen’s disability employee resource group, said diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are at the forefront among employers more than ever before.

However, she noted that race, gender, sexuality and religion often get more attention as underrepresented categories than disability does.

“To have this month is certainly a celebration,” Katz said, adding that studies show that hiring employees with disabilities “raises your bottom line.”

According to Accenture, companies that excelled in hiring people with disabilities have higher revenue and shareholder returns.

And don’t forget that employees with disabilities are also consumers.

The U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy categorizes persons with disabilities as the third-largest market segment in the U.S. after Hispanics and African Americans, noting that their discretionary income of $21 billion is more than that of the Hispanic and African American segments combined.

“When you make it known that you are a disability-friendly company, people with disabilities will buy your products,” said Katz, who was born with spina bifida and has used a wheelchair since age 10.

The Accenture study said that if the employment rate of people with disabilities went up by just  1 percentage point, that would result in a $25 billion increase to the GDP.

“So, not only is it good from a social standpoint, but it’s good from a financial and economic standpoint for people with disabilities to be involved in the workforce,” Rachfal said.

The U.S. government began educating the public on issues relating to disabilities in employment in 1945 by making the first week of October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” The word “physically” was removed in 1962 to include individuals with all types of disabilities.

It’s important to have National Disability Employment Awareness Month because people with disabilities are still severely underrepresented in the workforce.

Clark Rachfal, Para-cycling

In 1988, the entire month of October was dedicated to the cause under a new name.  Two years later the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed, guaranteeing access and prohibiting discrimination against individuals with physical or mental disabilities.

Rachfal, who joined the American Council of the Blind in 2019, said that for people who are blind or low vision, the unemployment rate and under-employment rate combined is around 70 percent.

He said that with most job applications these days online, systems must be accessible. Rachfal said some people use magnification software or change the color contrast on their screen so it’s more readable. Others use a screen reader that speaks the text.

“Once folks are employed, it’s about ensuring they have the necessarily assistive and accessible tools so they can be as productive as possible,” said Rachfal, 37, who has been legally blind since age 4 due to a congenital eye condition.

For example, he said he worked for several companies that offered their employees free parking in a garage at work, which is easily $15 a day in the Washington area. “No one questions the cost associated with driving to work and parking,” Rachfal said, “so managers and employers should look at assistive technology and the tools needed by employees with disabilities in the same light.”

He also said it was important to target people with disabilities for apprenticeships, internships and mentorships, “so not only are they gaining valuable experience, but they have a trajectory to be engaged and empowered in the workforce and advance their career.”

Katz, 41, said every place she has worked has been accessible, including ESPN, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, World Sport Chicago, Lululemon and the corporate world.

As an assistant store manager at Lululemon, Katz would sometimes encounter people who would look at her and say, “Oh, it’s so nice to see you here.” Or, “Do you work here?”

She would shrug off the comments. “You use it as an opportunity to say, ‘Yeah, I am here, and I’m an employee,’” she said, “and the hope is that you’re changing someone’s perspective and educating them a little bit.”

Katz said she thinks the insensitivity comes from “genuine surprise, because unfortunately, society isn’t used to seeing people with disabilities in the workplace. That is a fact. A lot of people don’t have experience or exposure to people with disabilities in their personal lives, so it’s not something they have really thought about that much.”

National Employment Disability Awareness Month and corporate initiatives to drive change can help make seeing people with disabilities in the workforce eventually become "status quo," Katz said.

In 2018, she joined Biogen, which does research development and makes therapies for people with neurological disorders and diseases.

“I’ve worked at some great places, and Biogen is above and beyond the best place I’ve ever worked,” Katz said. “We have these core values – what we call our elements – one of which is inclusive. The culture at Biogen isn’t just something they write down on paper or come up with a catchy phrase. We truly live and breathe it every single day.”

Katz said that representation matters. “If you don’t have diverse people on the inside,” she said, “you’re never going to get diverse people to come in from the outside.”

Rachfal, who worked for Verizon Communications in public policy for nine years, said he believes the Paralympics help bring awareness to the capabilities of people with disabilities.

“It’s also showing people with disabilities in a light that’s not all sunshine, puppies and roses,” Rachfal said. “It’s folks pushing themselves to the limit, getting down and dirty, so it really shows the grit, the determination, the hard work that goes into being a Paralympian, and being a champion. And those are the skills that directly translate to being successful in the workplace.”

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