The border of disability employment awareness

I recently had a conversation with a group of college students who also are affected by a variety of disabling conditions. This lead me to consider what is intended when we celebrate “National Disability Employment Awareness Month” each year. Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:


Story: The border of disability employment awareness

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). As someone who works in the area of organizational development with a focus on the inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWD) in professional settings, I am aware of NDEAM . As someone who has lived and worked with a visual disability for many years, I am not exactly sure what it means to have disability employment awareness.

I was a few years into a job as a materials manager when I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease (retinitis pigmentosa). Even though I worked for a national company, they had no idea how to support an employee with a disability. I left that job and enrolled in a business data processing program at the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). The goal was to learn skills that would allow me to be productive as my vision diminished. After becoming a member of the Student Senate, I learned that the school had dedicated programs to support persons with hearing and visual impairments but did not have a general dedication to the inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWD).

I was able to facilitate the organizational infrastructure necessary to support students with personal care attendants in accessing the educational experience. This involved many meetings, lots of negotiations, and a whole bunch of good people who just didn’t know how they could make a difference from their corner of the world. Among the major activities:

  • Ensuring liability protection for all parties involved
  • Finding/making accessible restroom spaces
  • Connecting those who aspire to be care providers with those who would benefit from personal care support

    Connecting the people, processes, and systems to create a network that had not been previously imagined was not especially hard. The challenges came in the form of ‘why’ rather than ‘what.’ Once people understood how they could have an impact on making education more accessible to more people they were generally supportive of getting involved. I also learned that it was in my best interest to know how to manage the processes and relationships necessary to ensure I could be productive as a person with a visual impairment.

    Note: My time at MATC was prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The civil rights of persons with disabilities (PWD) had not yet been defined as a national standard.

    Another take away from my time at MATC was the concept of an interface. In data processing, an interface is a bridge between two systems. If the format and data elements to be included in the interface are agreed upon there is no need to know what happens on the other side of the interface. My work with Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) recognizes the paradox of assumptions that persons with disabilities (PWD) lack qualifications and the high percentage of employers who reach out for assistance in retaining valued employees after the onset of a disabling condition. My own research has been consistent with this paradox.

    My Doctoral dissertation focused on the relationship of persons with disabilities (PWD) with their employer in professional settings. The major portion of my research came from PWD and managers at the border of inclusion. This border is the interface where PWD and managers engage in the process of inclusion.

    One of my research subjects (I’ll call him Mark) had the support of the company CEO as he dealt with a disease of the central nervous system. The CEO assured Mark that the company would support him in any way they could. Mark found the CEO to be a strong ally in his continued employment. The accommodations Mark received included such things as a preferred parking place, flexible work schedule, and work from home options.

    On the other hand, a research subject (I’ll call David), with a hidden disability, found it challenging to negotiate ways to be effective in his role. His supervisor was not open to David’s suggestions regarding ways he could be more productive. David reported that the supervisor did not provide alternate solutions or seek further resources within the organization. In this case, the border of inclusion presented itself as a wall rather than an interface.

    Mark and David represent two extremes of inclusion. Disability employment awareness appears to be an important factor in the experiences of both Mark and David. In Mark’s case, Mark and the CEO had an open conversation regarding Mark’s disability. The CEO valued Mark as a part of the company and had authority (control) over the resources to ensure Mark’s continued contribution to the work of the company. David’s supervisor took a more transactional approach to inclusion. David’s role with the organization was not indefinite and that may have been a factor in his supervisor’s response to the situation. An exploration of options and alternatives did not appear to be a consideration in conversations between David and his supervisor or between/among David, his supervisor, and other organizational resources. As a result, David struggled to be effective in his work. He has since moved on and is using his skills in a similar (but different) setting.

    Note: Both organizations employ more than 1,000 persons. David’s employer is considerably larger than Mark’s.

The interface between employers and employees

The experiences of Mark and David were illustrative of my doctoral research. Mark’s relationship with the CEO was key to his continued success at the organization. The accommodations Mark benefited from were easily defined and within the CEO’s authority to provide. The accommodations David requested raised policy questions outside the scope of the supervisor’s control. David’s supervisor may have been uncooperative due to bias or may simply not have known what resources/ options were available (including those defined under the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act).

The interface between PWD in professional settings and organizations rarely presents itself like the clearly defined parameters of a data interface. As a PWD, it is necessary to understand this borderland and to be proactive in navigating the space. As a hiring authority, it is important to know how to navigate the organizational infrastructure necessary to be an inclusive employer. Along this border lies the challenges of:

  • Disability shame
  • Ablism
  • Inadequate infrastructure design
  • Inadequate knowledge of organizational infrastructure
  • Institutional disenfranchisement
  • A system that is not designed to end institutional disenfranchisement

    As I look at this borderland, I am aware of the challenges persons with disabilities (PWD) face in negotiating the space. As an organizational development practitioner, I am aware that the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act require the support of organizational infrastructure. If the interfaces between hiring authorities and that infrastructure have not been defined or hiring authorities do not know how to access those resources; qualified individuals, with disabilities, will likely be excluded from consideration for employment.

    Disability employment awareness is a borderland to be recognized by both persons with disabilities (PWD) and employers.


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