Workforce contributions by Americans with disabilities

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Tomorrow marks the beginning of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Recognizing the contributions to the workforce by Americans with disabilities, this year’s theme is Disability: Part of the Equity Equation.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), the labor force participation rate in August of this year for those 16 years and older was 37.6% for people with disabilities compared to 77.5% for people without disabilities.

The monthlong observance is led by the DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. In a statement, Taryn M. Williams, assistant secretary for disability employment policy, says, “People with disabilities make up a wonderfully multifaceted group. By recognizing the full complexion of our community, we can ensure our efforts to achieve disability inclusion are, in fact, truly inclusive.”

Thoughts from Disability Inclusion Leaders

WorkingNation recently conducted conversations at the Disability: IN conference in Dallas with thought leaders about the efforts around disability inclusion.

“Many studies over decades have looked at hiring people with disabilities. Looking at things like absenteeism and turnover and those kinds of measurable employee or labor force statistics and have repeatedly shown that people with disabilities are dedicated employees that stay with companies,” says Ted Kennedy, Jr., co-chair of the Disability Equality Index, as well as past chair and board member of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

“We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to have an environment where people feel comfortable and that they belong and know that we will accommodate so folks can do their best work and feel part of the company,” says Apoorva Gandhi, SVP of multicultural affairs, social impact and business councils, Marriott International.

“My identity – I’m black, I’m deaf, I’m a woman, I’m an immigrant,” says Claudia Gordon, senior accessibility strategy partner, T-Mobile. “I have faced in the past and I still face multiple forms of discrimination, oppression, microaggressions, based on intersectional identities. I think it’s important for anyone listening to this interview, do not put people in a box.”

“At TD Bank, we’re really focused on building partnerships. And partnerships throughout the disability community to really drive awareness about our passion for hiring individuals with disabilities,” says John Pluhowski, SVP and chief communications officer, TD Bank. “Why is that so important to us? Because we want to break down the barriers that really prevent people from gaining access to jobs, careers, and organizations that really care to advance inclusion and equality across their company and around the globe.”

Creating a Talent Pipeline of Adults with Disabilities

“Discrimination is alive and well. We are the place where companies come together to learn from each other, to be competitive, and to advance disability, inclusion and equality,” says Jill Houghton, president and CEO, Disability:IN.

The nonprofit makes the case to employers that there is a talent pipeline they can’t afford to overlook. One report estimates that if an additional 1% of people with disabilities joined the labor force in the U.S., the GDP could be boosted by $25 billion.  

Shannon Maher, manager of NextGen Leader Initiatives, Disability:IN (Photo: Disability:IN)

“I think people with disabilities have a resilient quality about them that makes them stand out compared to your average applicant to any job posting,” says Shannon Maher, manager of NextGen Leader Initiatives at Disability:IN.

Maher, who was born with cerebral palsy, says navigating day-to-day life gives people with disabilities skills like problem-solving, adaptability, and flexibility.

NextGen Leader Initiatives links potential employees to over 400 corporate partners through mentorships and hiring opportunities. It counts some 2,000 alumni since the program started a decade ago.  

This year’s class includes 325 NextGen leaders and mentors. Maher sees evidence of growing interest among employers noting 25% growth compared to a year ago. She attributes it to unfilled jobs in the labor market.

“COVID has created a huge turnover and lots of different job opportunities,” explains Maher.

‘You can also do it’

In July of this year, 54 NextGen leaders attended the Disability:IN conference. Maher says, to date, 31 of the NextGen conference attendees have received offers for full-time jobs or internships. 

Ana Amurrio, NextGen leader and Voya Financial intern

Among them, Ana Amurrio, a senior at Santa Clara University, who landed a paid internship at Voya Financial – a Disability:IN corporate partner. She describes interacting with CEO Rodney O. Martin and representatives from other companies as encouraging. “Having all those companies there that are trying to create more diversity, it gives me hope for a better future for other people with disabilities,” says Amurrio.  

Amurrio, who has skeletal dysplasia, credits NextGen Leader Initiatives’ six-month virtual mentorship program with helping her learn more about the tech industry she wants to enter and boosting her confidence. “It empowered me. It showed me that it has been done and you can also do it,” she says. 

Mentors Helping to Overcome Obstacles 
Sudakar Govindarajan, senior project delivery manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Amurrio’s mentor is Sudakar Govindarajan, a senior project delivery manager at Deloitte Consulting LLP, who volunteers his time.  Govindarajan uses a wheelchair which he discloses to mentees with disabilities. “Specifically, for students like Ana with disabilities who are entering the workforce, I share my story and hope to inspire them to believe that they can do it, too. I help them create visions and goals, believe in themselves, and help them see that they can overcome obstacles,” says Govindarajan.  

For others looking to mentor, Govindarajan advises, “Think of mentoring as more about career counseling or coaching than transferring knowledge and leadership skills.” He adds, “Feel responsible as a mentor and gain a sense of satisfaction from knowing that you’ve put in time and effort to help someone.”

“Neurodiversity hiring, I think, is not going away and it’s only going to increase as the need for technology in our world continues to increase,” says Maher.

Making Disability Inclusion a Priority

Voya Financial has been recognized for five consecutive years as a Best Place to Work for Disability Inclusion – by the Disability Equality Index.

Martin, Voya’s CEO and chairman, says his company made disability inclusion a priority in 2015.

Rodney O. Martin, Jr., chairman and CEO, Voya Financial, Inc.

“Once we began to talk about making this a priority at Voya, people from across the company began to come to me with their stories — further solidifying that this is something that we must do. I often say that once you understand the magnitude, size, and economics of this community — you can’t ignore it, you can’t ‘un-ring’ that bell,” says Martin.

He says embedding awareness across the organization about disability inclusion and providing training was the first step. The company also formed an employee-led council which Martin describes as being made up of employees with disabilities and special needs, their caregivers, and allies to advance inclusion strategies. “We often start with this group in a test-and-learn environment when introducing a new product or tool,” he says. 

One program, Voya Cares, offers financial planning for people with special needs and their caregivers which Martin calls one of the company’s key business differentiators.  

He adds that the company has recently been expanding its hybrid work environment which can eliminate barriers to accessibility. “This has opened up exciting new opportunities to reach talented individuals as we continue advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion across our workforce.” 

Federal efforts to recognize people with disabilities began the first week of October 1945. In 1988, Congress expanded the week and marked the full month of October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Throughout October, WorkingNation will share more on disability initiatives spearheaded by stakeholders including companies, nonprofits, and higher education institutions.