On September 26, we celebrated 50 years since the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first federal legislation that protected the employment rights of disabled people in the United States. In 1977, disabled people participated in a civil rights demonstration by occupying federal buildings to demand legal action for accessibility and equality in the workplace, among other public settings. Known as the 504 Sit-In, these efforts resulted in the passage of long-awaited federal regulations related to provisions within the Rehabilitation Act.
Now, fifty years later and throughout the month of October, we’re celebrating Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Data from Mercer Global shows that 90% of companies conduct gender research; 75% keep statistics about race and ethnicity. But only 5% focus on disabled employment statistics.
The largest minority group in the United States, disabled people are still often left out. The lack of priority for disabled employment stems from a long history of disability servitude in custodial care units and sheltered workshops, where disabled employment was especially devalued.
In 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States outlawed institutional peonage, and later in 1979 mandated that resident-disabled workers be paid minimum wages for their labor. But under the Fair Labor Standards Act, many disabled people still make “subminimum wages” for the same work that their counterparts make living wages for. Other disabled people don’t work at all, as evidenced by the unemployment rate of 7.6% for the disabled population in 2022.
Celebrating Disability Employment Awareness Month means recognizing and creating more opportunities for disabled people to get in, and stay in, the workplace. Moreover, it’s about recognizing their contributions to the workforce.
The unemployment rate for disabled people is going down, with a 3.2% decrease from 2021 (10.8%). Therefore, many companies do employ a large number of disabled people, many who have visible impairments like mobility, hearing, or vision impairments, and others with invisible disabilities like intellectual or developmental.
The Rehabilitation Act, and later the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled people in the workplace. This includes hiring and firing, among other terms and conditions of employment. Further, employers must provide reasonable accommodation for disabled people to perform their jobs.
In 2020, the world assimilated to remote work. According to Forbes, currently 12.7% of employees work from home full time, and 28.2% have a flexible work arrangement with some days being from the office, and others remote. The normalization of telework greatly advances opportunities for disabled people. For instance, mobility devices are notoriously difficult to navigate in many office settings. Driving, walking, and parking are additional barriers people with mobility impairments face just to get to their jobs. Others with more invisible impairments may operate better and more efficiently from the comfort of their chosen workspace. As we saw during the beginning of the pandemic, work-from-home arrangements particularly advantage those who are or may be immunocompromised. Therefore, eliminating the requirement to be in person increases employment options for people with disabilities. And since many studies, including from the Harvard Business Review, show that remote employees are actually more productive, telework is an especially viable accommodation option that can help recruit and maintain a diverse and inclusive workforce.
There are many ways to acknowledge disability in the workplace. Removing marginal functions from a disabled employee’s duties can be as simple as not asking them to make the daily mail run when another, non-disabled employee can easily absorb that function into their own duties. Although the act is uncomplicated, the result can be enormous in paying recognition to the disabled worker’s impairment. It shows that the employer values the essential parts of the employee’s work instead of focusing on the dispensable parts that make the job more difficult.
Creating accessibility benefits everyone. Curb cuts benefit everyone, but they were intended to remove accessibility barriers for people who use mobility devices. Similarly, making a workplace more physically and technologically accessible benefits disabled and non-disabled employees alike. Closed caption video meetings, caption-generating software on company phones, ergonomic workstations, and floor pads are accommodation options to implement for disabled employees, but they are helpful for non-disabled people. And for the most part, these accessibility tools are inexpensive and easy to execute.
Employing people with disabilities is good for companies. The best way to celebrate Disability Employment Awareness Month is to continue and expand inclusive employment practices in the other 11 months as well.