October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in the United States. However, you may not have noticed due to several other monthly observances nationwide. NDEAM is sponsored annually in October by the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, which says the observance dates back to 1945. The goal of NDEAM is to shine a spotlight on — and raise awareness about — disability issues in the workplace, including employer responsibilities and employee rights.
The employment population ratio for people without disabilities (65.7%) was more than triple that of people with disabilities (18.7%) in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Disability employment is a persistent problem, despite broad efforts by the federal government and disability rights groups to promote voluntary compliance with the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One might think more progress had been made by now, nearly 30-years after the ADA’s enactment. This is especially true due to new and evolving Assistive Technology to help people with disabilities in the workplace and society. Unfortunately, disability discrimination is still a pervasive problem in the employment context, despite incremental gains over the decades to level the playing field.
Companies of all sizes should consider this:
People with disabilities represent a vast pool of untapped talent in a competitive domestic labor force where the national unemployment rate is nearing historic lows.
I recently spoke with Christopher J. Kuczynski. Chris is the Assistant Legal Counsel for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and heads the ADA/GINA Policy Division within the agency’s Office of Legal Counsel.
An EEOC veteran attorney, Chris served as Associate Director for the White House Domestic Policy Council in 2003–2004. He’s also played an instrumental role in writing EEOC’s ADA rules, regulations and policy guidance.
Employers nationwide would be wise to pay close attention to what Chris has to say in order to foster discrimination-free work environments based on talent, merit, and ability to do the job (for people with or without a disability). My conversation with Chris — presented in a Question & Answer (Q&A) format below — covers the following disability employment issues:
- Workforce Diversity & Disability.
- Disability Population & Employment.
- Reasonable Accommodation.
- Leadership from the Top.
- Myths, Fears & Stereotypes.
- Accessibility & Technology.
- EEOC Enforcement, Training & Outreach.
- Genetic Discrimination in the Workplace.
Diversity & Disability
- DG: Can you explain the importance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month
and why the employer community should pay attention?
- CK: One of the things I have emphasized is that disability should be part of the model of diversity that is so important in the workplaces of America today.
I don’t think disability has become fully incorporated into the notion of diversity, in which disability is seen as a real positive value in the workplace. A month like this is an opportunity to remind people of why it should be.
2. DG: When we talk about disability awareness do you think most employers still don’t get it regarding why disability employment is important?
- CK: Even though disability is still an issue for companies 28-years after the passage of the ADA, I think more employers are aware of it in ways they have certainly not been prior to the ADA. Disability has become a larger part of the modern business model.
One of the things that may still be a struggle for employers of any size is the concept of reasonable accommodation. Some employers may have concerns about the cost of accommodations, although studies show this cost is not great.
— EEOC’s Chris Kuczynski (CK)
3. DG: According to a well-cited study by Cornell University, the cost of accommodating an employee with a disability is only $500 on average — and the ROI is much higher per productivity gains. Do employers know that?
- CK: The studies are out there and available to employers. I think many large employers are familiar with the $500 figure. However, in addition to dollars and cents costs, companies might also be thinking about how difficult or disruptive the accommodation process could be to the operation of their business.
Reasonable accommodation requires employers to do things differently from the way in which they would normally do them, in order to provide equal employment opportunities. Reasonable accommodation is something employers may grapple with because it requires a response to individualized needs that people with disabilities may have.
4. DG: Do enough employers know the rules, regulations, and responsibilities involved in providing reasonable accommodations, nearly three decades after the ADA became law?
- CK: I think many employers do know about the ADA’s rules and regulations, but certainly there are some that don’t. There are any number of resources available for companies where they can learn more, including our website www.eeoc.gov.
The EEOC regularly provides the business community with Technical Assistance Program Seminars, information updates on our web site and other outreach. We also have small business liaisons in the field.
Sometimes it’s not so much that employers don’t know how to comply with the ADA — or even have policies in place — but there could be problems in communicating those policies so they’re filtering down to supervisory officials who must make day-to-day decisions about accommodations.
A reasonable accommodation is just a simple request for a change that’s needed because of a medical condition.
Leadership from the Top
5. DG: How important is it in corporate America for CEOs to communicate the message that workforce diversity includes people with disabilities, rather than only the HR department or just putting information in employee handbooks?
CK: It’s critically important for the message to filter down from the very top of the organization. That’s because even the best workforce may not be committed to any type of project until employees believe executive leaders and managers are committed to it. This includes disability hiring and diversity.
What leadership from the top should also mean is that it becomes part of the accountability for managers and front-line supervisors.
That is, performance should be assessed in part on whether hiring managers or others within the organization are evaluating diversity when it comes to disability and other protected statuses. Leadership from the top comes with accountability for officials who implement these policies and practices. This includes outreach to the disability community and working closely with advocacy groups to implement and/or revise policies and procedures that make good business sense.
Some candidates have all the qualifications that an employer requires, however, what’s standing in the way is myths, fears and stereotypes.