This October is the 75th year America has observed National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Like other “awareness months,” NDEAM spotlights a disparity in the workforce—in this case, the lower than average employment rates of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs). NDEAM works to lessen this inequity through workshops, seminars, and online resources. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The United States has made significant progress, thanks to the tireless work of activists and advocates for the disabled community, but unfortunately, we will need to continue to call attention to NDEAM and the ADA until a truly equitable workforce is finally achieved.
An inequitable workforce
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), PWDs make up approximately 26% of the adult population in the United States (this is approximately the same percentage of all non-White minorities combined). This number includes D/deaf and blind Americans, wheelchair users, neurodiverse persons, and people with age-related disabilities. One out of every four adults in this country, or 61 million people, have some sort of disability and yet this vast, diverse community continues to be denied basic workplace equality and accessibility (and it is expected that the number of PWDs is set to double in the next twenty years). The U.S. unemployment rate among PWDs is roughly twice as high as the national unemployment rate, and the numbers are even higher amongst people with certain types of disabilities. Gallaudet University reports that people with “severe hearing problems” have an unemployment rate of 41% to as high as 52%. If we are striving for an equitable society where the workforce accurately and fairly reflects the entire adult population, we have a long way to go and need to continue to raise awareness.
This year’s NDEAM theme is “Increasing Access and Opportunity.” I am intimately familiar with the challenges to access because I have been profoundly deaf since birth. Growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s, access was almost always an uphill battle. As a child, my parents and I had to fight for access and inclusive opportunities; for example, captioning. I did not always have access to captioned live events or feel comfortable asking for a seat closer to the speaker so I could lip-read. Luckily, I have witnessed a shift and for the most part, I can now request such services and my needs will be met without being made to feel like an inconvenience (though certainly not always). In my UX Design career today, I strive to create designs that are as inclusive as possible because it’s personal. As an IBMer on the Accessibility team, I help create tools that make accessibility easy for teams to learn and apply. My role within Accessibility at IBM is not just a job; it’s a passion and a calling.
Inclusive Design is about equalizing experiences and products for those who have different needs or barriers (disabilities). The term “disability” should not refer to people being “defective,” but rather how they must operate in an environment that doesn’t cater, or has barriers, to their needs. For example, if a place only has stairs, a wheelchair user encounters a barrier, but a ramp or elevator erases that barrier. Until access requests disappear because they are consistently acknowledged, anticipated, and made readily available, our community will need to continue to raise awareness.
Why hire PWDs?
Diversity on teams and in leadership positions provide companies with fresh perspectives and an authentic understanding of their clients’ needs. This lends to new ideas and innovation, which allow companies to maintain a competitive edge. The benefits of a diverse, more inclusive workforce are becoming more and more apparent and widely accepted. For example, in her book, Make Room For Her, Rebecca Shambaugh points to research that shows companies with women on their boards perform better: their profits are greater; they are more likely to attract and retain top talent; and they are better able to grow and maintain a competitive edge. The same positive benefits would certainly result from hiring more PWDs; whether they have visible or invisible disabilities, these are valuable perspectives that can contribute to a more inclusive and equitable workforce, not to mention a more diverse customer/client base. When you hire people with different backgrounds, you are more likely to design and create products and services that cater to a wider, more diverse range of the consumer population.
IBM is deeply proud of its long and storied history in hiring and, perhaps more importantly, recognizing the value that PWDs bring to the workforce. Internally we use the term “Persons with Diverse Abilities” (PWDAs) to highlight the fact that diversity brings in different perspectives, which is hugely beneficial for innovation—the heart of what we do at IBM! IBM also recognizes that it would be financially irresponsible to create products that deny access to more than a quarter of the population. By hiring PWDAs, IBM ensures its products reflect all possible customers. Who best to design for, communicate with, and sell to these potential consumers than PWDAs?
Access leads to opportunities, which generate more innovative and creative tools, products, and services. National Disability Employment Awareness Month is a crucial observance of the importance and benefits of incorporating accessibility, and implementing Inclusive Design, into workplaces and corporations at all levels of management and operation. I am grateful for the raised awareness during the month of October, but relish the thought of a future in which NDEAM is no longer needed.
Positivity changes hearts and minds and culture. We still have a long way to go. But as we celebrate the 31st anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act, I wanted to step back and celebrate how far we’ve come.
IBM remembers Dr. Brent Shiver. His perspective as a Deaf person was an essential part of his impact: "Because of my deafness, I see the world differently from my colleagues and can make technical and innovative contributions from angles not usually considered."