This blog is on topics of interest to early career professionals who work with people with disabilities. Blog contributors have diverse perspectives on leadership, professional development, and success in changing systems to better serve people with disabilities and their families. For more information on Early Career Professionals, check out the website: www.aucd.org/ecp

12 September, 2010

Let’s Talk about Disability & Employment


October is known as Disability Employment Awareness Month. We all know that accepting differences is the basic fiber that binds us together as a strong community. I hope my message will inspire you to do what’s right, to stand up and embrace the challenge that is before you, and provide leadership within your programs to recruit and retain the most qualified applicants and employees from diverse backgrounds. Only through my actions and the actions of others will lead to the expectations of numerous opportunities for full participation of citizens, regardless of the diverse abilities or ethnicities within the workplace.

I am a Filipino American with cerebral palsy, commonly known CP. My disability normally occurs at birth when there are complications and part of the brain dies due to lack of oxygen. My motor skills are affected and I have a very mild case of CP. There are various levels of severity when it comes to cerebral palsy. Yes, indeed, I am very fortunate and very appreciative to be communicating and connecting with you at this very moment.

I did something significant; do you know what it is? It’s something very simple, but it appears to be a great hurdle faced by employers and employees and it’s probably the greatest obstacle that prevents many of our workplaces from reaching their fullest potential. Any clue what I am referencing? I was willing to disclose both my ethnicity and disability. The latter is especially significant. Why is this significant in today’s modern workplace? If employees are willing to disclose their disabilities, supervisors and managers can offer reasonable accommodations and other appropriate supports when they ask for them. The employees will feel safe and valued if they are willing to share information as sensitive as that. As all of you further your young careers, you are striving to have and maintain an environment that treats all of your colleagues and peers with respect and dignity at all times. There is strength in diversity and the programs that embrace this value will truly be inclusive of all employees, regardless of their cultural backgrounds and experiences.

Now, ladies and gentleman, what people with disabilities are facing with employment are problems that have been longstanding, researched, noted in textbooks, and yet, we have progressed very little in employing what the American society deemed as our most vulnerable population. In order to begin understanding the employment challenges and difficulties faced by individuals with disabilities, one must know his or her community. For example, let’s take our Nation’s capitol, the District of Columbia, where I currently reside. I am also the Executive Director for the District of Columbia’s Developmental Disabilities Council. The DD Council is a federally funded program charged with identifying the most pressing needs of people with developmental disabilities in the District of Columbia. There are approximately 116,000 residents with disabilities serving and living in the community – roughly 20% of the population of the District of Columbia. Based on the 2007 American Community Survey conducted by Cornell University, the unemployment rate of working-age District residents with disabilities between ages 21 and 64 is sixty-seven percent (67%). The percentage of residents with disabilities who are actively seeking work but are not currently working is approximately eleven percent (11%). In addition, twenty-eight percent (28%) of the working-age residents with disabilities attain a high school diploma or the equivalent – that is approximately 32,500 individuals with disabilities in the District. As a result, the poverty rate among this population is staggering at thirty-eight percent (38%) or approximately 44,000 District residents with disabilities living at or below the poverty line.

As a person with a physical disability growing up in a suburban area of Virginia and participating in community activities, I was often isolated, tolerated, and my peers often passed judgment based on my differences. Keeping in mind, I was always mainstreamed and trying to fit in with all the able-bodied children – a battle that I found myself constantly on the losing end as an adolescent.

Now apply that same stigma to adulthood and the pressure is magnified ten-fold because “people like me” are viewed as the anomaly instead of the norm. Case in point, less than two percent of federal employees have been identified as people with disabilities. Granted, I do believe that the percentage of federal employees with disabilities is substantial higher, but I think I understand why the findings are so dismal.

Toleration or having a sense of being tolerated is probably the worst type of division that all people with disabilities and of different cultural backgrounds experience at one time. Due to the fact that there is such a stigma being classified as an individual with a disability, the less than two percent is not surprising at all. Being tolerated within your circle of colleagues or workplace means a lack of willingness to bridge that gap of true understanding and acceptance; breeds disrespect and lack of dignity; but mostly, the toleration that I’m talking about is the type that communicates to the fortunate few who want to work got where they are, not based on their own merits, but because of someone’s good graces or given the opportunity to work because of obligation and other pressures.

I feel that this form of toleration is seeping through all of our government agencies and private businesses and companies, especially when it comes to the recruitment and retention practices of qualified employees with disabilities. And it’s the responsibility of every one of us to embrace those differences and move on together as a team, benefiting one another, and growing together as a workforce. Furthermore, approximately 85% of all disabilities cannot be seen by the naked eye, also known as hidden disabilities. Think about this for a moment. Based on this information, chances are that your family members and friends who do not work within the disability field already know a peer who may or may not disclose his or her disability in their office. But does it really matter? In the end, we’re one of the same in the dark; we’re all human.

In closing, I have Five Lessons for you to take back as you continue to improve upon your work. You can forget who I am, but remember what I’m saying here today. Here we go, take notes, because you are officially now enrolled in Mat 101!

Lesson #1:
Which type of individual is the most dangerous in this world of ours? The one that realizes his/her own potential and constantly strives to be the very best while making a positive difference in the lives of others. True, individuals with guns and bombs are dangerous, but not as dangerous as individuals who are committed in making a positive impact on others. I was born into a world that wasn’t meant for me, but I’m willing to participate in this world in hopes of making the path of individuals closely following behind me easier. I’m not known for talking about what’s important, but instead my legacy lies in the actions that I take to improve my community. In relationship to that thought, if fellow colleagues ask you why they should consider improving upon their workplace by being more inclusive of their employees with disabilities, challenge them by replying:

This is your life, are you who you want to be?
If not, arise and be everything you hope and dreamed to be.

I am a dangerous person. The possibilities are great. Only I know my potential, and that’s the reason why I am dangerous. I challenge all of the supervisors, managers and employees to realize your own potential and the potential of others. Only then, will the less than two percent begin to reverse the trend.

Lesson #2:
The world is a highly competitive place. In a society where social status is given great emphasis, conformity is what some people revert to when trying to get ahead of the game. Conform when you must, but don’t allow social biases and organizational pressures prevent you from doing what is right. Think critically, always think critically. When making a more inclusive environment for all of your colleagues with and without disabilities: Go against the norm, make some noise, and challenge the ones around you. Think and use your mind to make a positive difference within your office and the colleagues that you impact. Use your mind and achieve greatness – consider the impossibility and transform it into reality. That’s how the best arise from all the rest.

Lesson #3:
You may be unsure if you’re able or possess the resources to create an inclusive work environment that values and embraces your employees’ diverse abilities, strengths and talents. Take heart, though, I’m worried for you, but it’s all good! You could view this as an obstacle, but don’t. View it as a challenge to overcome. View it as a way to become a better person. You will be faced with many challenges throughout your lifetime. The questions are: Do you have the heart and integrity to overcome your fears? Do you have the courage within yourself to rise above it all? Your heart should already be able to answer these questions.

Lesson #4:
Don’t be afraid to fail. No one should be afraid of failing. Without failing, you can’t learn to succeed. You only really fail when you don’t learn from your mistakes and give up. Never give up. Never give up on your dreams and passions in life. When you do fail, consider this: “And God help you if you are a phoenix and you dare rise from the ash. A thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy while you are just flying back” (32 Flavors - Ani Difranco). When you’re near the bottom, have the courage to be the phoenix that dares rise up from the ash. Go against the norms of society and beat the odds. Remember this: “A spirit with a vision is a dream on a mission” (Mission - Rush). Take this to heart, persistence and determination win.

Fifth and final lesson:
The fifth and final lesson is actually small remainders as you conduct your work in the office on a daily basis. Smile and laugh often, you look more attractive when you do. When in trouble, talk very slowly and think quickly. Chew with your mouth closed and don’t bite your nails, your bad habits will be scrutinized by your colleagues. Always be proud of your company's letters or logo that you wear, you’re telling everyone that your community and fellow colleagues are greater than your own ambitions. That’s really saying something. Rely on your employees and colleagues. “We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other, one” (One - U2). They are there for a reason. Finally, and most importantly, give thanks whenever you can to your colleagues, employees, friends, family, and loved ones. Your success depends on it.

Remember these Five Lessons: Realize your potential and go to the top; Use your mind and always think critically. It’s beautiful to see you grow; Don’t be afraid to fail, that’s the only way to succeed; Overcome your challenges, you will achieve immortality through the eyes of others, and finally; Don’t forget to give thanks. If you do you’re very best of creating the most inclusive work environments for your colleagues and friends with and without disabilities, you will truly be getting things done! Thank you very much and I wish you the very best.

In the photo: Senator Tom Harkin (IA) and I are taking a moment together in front of the White House on July 26, 2010 - the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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