By Lynn Rutherford | Dec. 03, 2019, 8:11 p.m. (ET)
Mallory Weggemann recites the Pledge of Allegiance on the second day of the Democratic National Convention on July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia.

 

Today, Dec. 3, is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a global effort to promote understanding and support for the dignity, rights and health of disabled people around the globe.

First proclaimed in 1992 by the United Nations’ General Assembly, IDPD’s theme this year is #FutureIsAccessible. A quick Twitter search yields hundreds of examples of people marking the occasion in communities and workplaces around the world. From a London choir incorporating sign language, to a disabled women’s march in Nepal and the launch of wheelchair-accessible powerboats in Wales, organizations are putting IDPD’s goals into action.

At the UN Headquarters in New York City, UN officials, ambassadors, corporate leaders and experts on disability employment gathered to discuss how to help eliminate the conscious and unconscious biases that restrict what disabled people can accomplish in the workplace.

“The theme of today is the necessity of providing access to employment for persons with disabilities, and to ensure they are included in the workplace in greater numbers,” Catherine Pollard, the UN’s under-secretary-general for management strategy, policy and compliance, said in her welcoming address.

Pollard and her colleagues invited U.S. Paralympian Mallory Weggemann to deliver the event’s keynote address. Weggemann, who became a paraplegic after an epidural injection to treat back pain in 2008, went on to compete in two Paralympic Games as a swimmer, winning two Paralympic medals and 15 world titles to date as she works toward the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

“It is such an honor being able to share my message in a way that can hopefully empower others to create more access and, most of all, more opportunity for inclusion for disabled individuals,” Weggemann told TeamUSA.org as she prepared to give her remarks.

“That means being invited to the table, and not only to sit at the table but to share our thoughts and opinions and turn them into action. In the past 30 years, the disability employment rate has only increased about 1 percent. We need a path forward. We have technology at our fingertips — now, we need to find a better way to change perception and unconscious bias of what disability looks like.”

As Weggemann noted, disability impacts all of us. Some 61 million adults in the United States — about 26 percent of the adult population — live with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as persons with no disability.

“This is about much more than just me, Mallory,” Weggemann said. “Hopefully, I can be a small piece in this bigger flame for the fight to make sure disabled individuals are fully included, not just in the U.S., but globally.”

Building on the UN’s theme of inclusion, human resource directors from several Fortune 500 companies shared their strategies for ensuring opportunities for disabled persons. Several noted that creating reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities, as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act, is often surprisingly easy and cost-effective.

“It is a lot less scary than some might expect,” Monique Lanaux, an executive director for Pepsico, said. “And, you create a better workplace for everyone and instill loyalty in your employees."

Others acknowledged that while hiring is the first step, opportunities for disabled individuals to lead organizations are often scarce.

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Jim Sinocchi, head of the office of disability inclusion at JP Morgan Chase & Co., broke his neck body surfing in 1980 and is a quadriplegic using a power wheelchair. Throughout his career, he has dealt with coworker preconceptions about his abilities.

“How do you, as a disabled person, engender respect as a leader?” Sinocchi said. “When they see you wheel into a room, their confidence level in you goes down. They think two things: ‘Am I going to catch something, some type of illness?’ Or, ‘Will I say something that’s not politically correct?’”

Others on the workplace inclusion panel suggested two possible remedies: mentors and role models.

“(Having mentors) is how I got to where I am today, and now I have the opportunity to be a leader,” said Emily Ladau, a communications consultant and disability rights advocate. “We need to recognize a lot of the skills we develop (as disabled people) equip us to be leaders and navigate challenges. We’re familiar with problem solving, with finding the long way around if we can’t get through the door. That equips us to be leaders.”

Elaine E. Katz, a senior vice president of the Kessler Foundation, a global leader in rehabilitation research and employment funding, shared success stories from NYC: ATWORK, a public/private partnership that directly connects jobseekers with disabilities and businesses.

“Since 2017, over 100 employers and 70 NGOs have tried to find as many jobs as possible throughout the city’s five boroughs,” Katz said. “It’s spread to 11 different cities. But still, we’ve found that persons with disabilities are not always part of the diversity discussion, not part of that conversation.”

Helping to change perceptions and put disabled people in the mainstream is where Weggemann, and so many other Paralympians, play an important role. Watching disabled athletes perform feats many able-bodied people cannot do “flips the disability stereotype right on its heads,” Weggemann said.

“Sport has a really powerful ability to transform the field of play,” she added. “It’s such an incredible equalizer. It reminds us that just because you have four wheels underneath you, or you are visually impaired, or you have another disability, that doesn’t make you much different.

“I tell people: ‘I have a husband, I’m a dog mom, I’m a homeowner. I’m not any different, just because I have a spinal cord injury.’ Sport brings people together.”

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.