By Carol Glazer, President, National Organization on Disability, and Kathleen A. Petkauskos, Senior Program Director, Work Without Limits
To have a disability in America is to belong to a large extended community — one out of every five of us fits the description — that includes immense diversity, but also common threads of shared experience. One of those shared experiences is a wholly unwelcomed one. It’s unemployment, an artificial and unnecessary gulf that keeps tens of millions of people out of the productive workforce. It is wasteful and isolating and painful.
The trend lines, however, are more promising than they’ve ever been. Today’s employers have enormous incentives to find, train, welcome, retain, and promote new sources of talent. And the disability workforce may well be the richest talent pool still broadly untapped — ready, willing, and most of all, able to supply the dedication and ingenuity that will fuel the workforce of the 21st century.
So why, then, are so many still unemployed?
For American business, the quest for talent — the most gifted, the most driven, the most committed — has become the defining challenge of our times. The massive wave of baby boom retirement, plus the surge of competition for skills, creativity, and loyalty, has created a shortage — not just of workers, but of the best workers, the ones who imagine, persevere, overcome challenges, and exceed expectations.
Yet strangely, major segments of corporate America continue to overlook a pool of available employees who excel in just these ways. People with disabilities spend their lives ignoring discouragement, persisting through setbacks, solving problems, and finding creative routes around obstacles. They are a rich supply of talent, ready to be tapped, at a time when talent is at a premium.
This fact is more than field-tested: the employers who do hire from this pool consistently rank employees with disabilities among their best, most dedicated workers, with some of the lowest rates of turnover. Furthermore, surveys confirm that customers tend to favor companies that make the effort.
And yet, barely one-fifth of people with disabilities have found a job.
Something is wrong. A critical connection is being missed — at enormous cost in individual lives, in productivity, and in the corporate bottom line.
This failure to hire from this ready and able talent pool is even more troubling for business now, when a recent rule requires federal contractors to show measurable progress toward filling 7 percent of their jobs, at all levels, with employees with disabilities. For businesses covered by this rule — which together employ one in four American workers — missing out on the disability labor force will be costly both in productivity and in regulatory compliance.
Admittedly, finding the right workers in any labor pool — especially one not yet fully familiar to many employers — may demand some skills and effort that are out of the ordinary. For that, the National Organization on Disability — for 35 years the nation’s preeminent link between people with disabilities and the wider world of employment, independence, and community — offers companies a complete set of solutions. We don’t just analyze, advise, and assess; we make the journey with companies, from initial exploration through stage after stage of improvement, all the way to success.
We also are focused on helping our colleges and universities become more adept at helping graduates with disabilities find employment. While our nation’s universities have become increasingly skilled at ensuring accommodations on campus for students with disabilities, most are not as equipped at preparing students with disabilities for the workforce or introducing these young adults to the employers seeking to hire them. The result is that only 25-percent of college graduates with disabilities are working. So together with local partners in Boston, including Work Without Limits, a program of UMass Medical School, and lead support from The Coca-Cola Foundation, we are launching Campus to Careers, a pilot program to get these talented young men and women started in rewarding professional careers. Boston was selected because of its rich ecosystem of higher-education institutions and employers motivated to hire top talent. We will report out on our findings from Boston and scale effective methods nationally.
The mission – ours and every other agency committed to this cause – is to ensure that no talent, no ability, no human potential ever goes to waste, and that everyone who aspires to contribute and achieve will be part of a labor market and a society that values their ability, welcomes their energy, and rewards their dedication to excellence.