David Roberts, the chief policy and strategy officer at the non-profit ENERGY ASSIST, recently shared insights with me about how he and ENERGY ASSIST educate millennials, cisgender women, non-binary and trans people who may have faced systemic and discriminatory policies or business environments that prevent them from pursuing employment, and adults with disabilities who desire to return to the workforce.
Disabled Americans are increasingly visible in the public eye, representing the oft-forgotten minority of Americans living with disabilities. We are consumers, advocates, advocates for change, leaders, innovators and the future. We deserve equality, dignity and support.
One of the challenges for Americans with disabilities is breaking down barriers to employment. Many Americans with disabilities are denied entry into businesses for fear of discrimination on the basis of disability. Further, many of us with disabilities face institutional racism and implicit discrimination because of societal narratives that continue to view our situation as a morbid liability, or as an acceptable cost of living in America.
There is no “them,” there is only us.
To break down these barriers and to equalize opportunities, ENERGY ASSIST formed The Support Network, a resource for people with disabilities living, working and looking for work. ENERGY ASSIST supports more than 25,000 Americans with disabilities, representing more than 1 million dollars in annual savings to the federal government. Through The Support Network, ENERGY ASSIST offers accessible training and employment as well as business expertise and approach. While this resource is currently geared toward small and mid-sized businesses, ENERGY ASSIST plans to expand its offerings to larger employers as well as municipalities.
ENERGY ASSIST seeks to “design and implement ways that businesses can make a deeper, more inclusive impact” on the talent pool. Thus, the programs they offer are multifaceted, including including placements, internship, and vocational options, as well as mentorship and case management opportunities.
The U.S. Department of Labor and other federal agencies have issued guides and policies that tackle the barriers the support network identifies, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance, which recently was extended to these issues as well. Although these issues have not traditionally been considered as part of a disability inclusion strategy, policies and education often play an important role in breaking down barriers to employment. For example, the Employment of Persons with Disabilities-Experiences and Progress (EPOP) Guidelines, which were issued by the Labor Department in 2011, specifically emphasizes the importance of business employers making a policy statement of inclusion.
These strategies represent an important gateway to a comprehensive and inclusive disability inclusion strategy. Unless businesses have made a statement about inclusion, and reinforced their commitment to an inclusive environment, these approaches will not be successful in achieving inclusive access to employment. The importance of companies having a zero-tolerance policy, of which we have seen in response to the #MeToo movement, cannot be understated. This is the right and responsible way to combat systemic and discriminatory employment practices that keep people with disabilities out of the workforce and the workplace.
Ideally, there will be no barriers to entry. However, it is essential to understand the specific circumstances that individuals with disabilities face when it comes to pursuing employment.
Most people do not recognize the obstacles individuals with disabilities face when pursuing employment. For instance, many employers see an advertised job with no requirements and wonder if applicants are legally allowed to work there — and if so, whether they should hire them.
It may seem counterintuitive, but this is a key reason that applicants with disabilities with language-related disabilities like dyslexia and Asperger’s, and with intellectual disabilities like autism and dysgraphia, have less success in gaining employment than candidates without these disabilities. The fact is that many employers fear hiring applicants with language-related disabilities.
There are a multitude of barriers faced by people with disabilities as they look for employment: on-the-job accommodations, socioeconomic disadvantages, diagnosis/diagnosis bias, lack of job search resources and employment strategies, hidden disabilities and even physical barriers at the workplace.
Disability-related disparities present a dynamic challenge for companies. Together, employers, advocacy groups and advocates work to change the tide, change the challenges, and improve the experiences for individuals with disabilities. Indeed, America has a choice — to recognize and fully value each individual with a disability, including their inherent ability to contribute positively to the social fabric of the country.