To commemorate National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), National Disability Institute (NDI) staff share thoughts on how ensuring access to employment for people with disabilities benefits everyone

Collage of NDI staff member headshots, including Rebecca Salon, Mary Lynn Revoir, Nancy Boutot, Hope Price, Elizabeth Layman, Thomas Foley, Andrea Urqueta Alfaro, Bridgett Graham, Michelle Bornhoft, Laura Gleneck, Laurie Schaller, and Kevin Nickerson

In his Proclamation on National Disability Employment Awareness Month, 2021, President Joseph R. Biden states: “Our Nation will never fully recover and rebuild unless every single community — including disabled Americans — is fully included.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if our community was whole? If one of us is held back, all of us are held back.” – Hope Price, Project Coordinator

Employment is empowering. Working and access to a job can provide individuals a sense of dignity and equality, yet we know systemic inequality creates barriers that hinder an individual with a disability’s access to employment and full participation in their communities. National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to breaking down the barriers that lead to one in four people with disabilities living in poverty.

“Even when living within poverty and dependent on benefits, persons with disability are often supporting others within their communities. If [people with disabilities] become more financially able through employment, others around them – families and communities – will also benefit.” – Andrea Urqueta Alfaro, Director of Research

In recognition of NDEAM and its theme, “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion,” NDI is highlighting work being done to advance the equity and financial empowerment of people with disabilities and asked staff members to share thoughts and insights on how ensuring access to employment for these individuals benefits our communities, economy and the country as a whole as we move through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

“Individuals with disabilities are an integral piece of the economy, but with a lack of access this is often unnoticed or overlooked.” – Laura Gleneck, Division Director, Employment

“Everyone benefits from living in an inclusive community, and when people with disabilities are included in the workforce, the economy grows locally and the country grows globally.”
– Nancy Boutot, Manager, Financial Empowerment

“Employment for all improves the likelihood that communities thrive as people have money to purchase goods and services where they live and work.” – Laurie Schaller, Manager Financial Empowerment

“Adding taxpayers to the tax base, decreasing public benefits and increasing purchasing power all add up to a monetary contribution worth noting as another game-changer for our economy and the country as a whole.” – Mary Lynn ReVoir, Co-Director, American Dream Employment Network (ADEN)

The value of an inclusive workforce lies not only in the tangible contributions of people with disabilities to America’s workplaces and economy, but also in the ability to change attitudes in the workplace and in our neighborhoods.

“The first time someone using a wheelchair shows up at the office, it may be a novel or notable experience for many employees. After a little time, a few meetings, or a team lunch out, the same person rolling down the hall becomes part of the group. ‘Oh, that’s Haley, from accounting, she’s, sadly, a huge Jets fan.’ This comfort level, transfers to a wider community context, to the grocery store, to the bank and the local club or restaurant. Simply put, it shifts people with disabilities to being part of, rather than separate from, the community.”
– Tom Foley, Executive Director, NDI

“Seeing people with disabilities, working in our communities, benefits everyone. From the perspective of the person who interacts with the individual with a disability, if visible, they learn that people with disabilities do work. This may be surprising to people who have not experienced disability and helps normalize working with a disability.”
Kevin Nickerson, Co-Director, American Dream Employment Network

NDI and its staff aim to change policies and expectations and provide services to empower people with disabilities and their families to build a better financial future for all. The American Dream Employment Network creates a path for individuals with disabilities who are currently receiving Social Security disability benefits and want to return to, or begin, working for the first time. The needs of jobseekers with disabilities are unique. Based on the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to live their American Dream, ADEN has made a difference in the lives of its participants and members by connecting people with disabilities with Employment Service Providers who can help them achieve individual employment goals.

“Employment for people with disabilities is far more than a job offer. It’s the culture and atmosphere of a workplace that can take a good job to a great job. It can make a job that’s just ’to make a living‘ into really living life authentically and fully, even while at work.”
– Michelle Bornhoft, Project Coordinator, ADEN

“As we learn how to engage the energy, inspiration and passions of individuals with disabilities in our industries, this also adds to the health, vitality and strength of our communities. Instead of supporting individuals at a subsistence level to remain outside of the fray, we can provide them with the ability to achieve, grow and build assets – opportunities to contribute rather than depend on others for support.” – Doug Keast, Project Manager

An important solution for the financial security of all Americans, including those with disabilities, is career engagement. NDI’s Inclusive Employment Solutions (IES) offers technical assistance, tools and resources to support community leaders and workforce system managers, service professionals and others in efforts to improve career pathways and employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities. IES focuses on the capacity of community-based and workforce systems in creative, individualized approaches to careers.

“Ensuring access to employment for people with disabilities benefits our communities because it opens the door for many different and diverse perspectives to work. People with disabilities lead, are able to contribute, engage and elevate corporations, big and small, to bring forth a real benefit that can have real impact on our communities.”
– Bridgett Graham, Manager, Financial Empowerment

When workplaces create welcoming environments and accommodations so that people can contribute to the work and mission of the organization, those workplaces are better work environments for everyone. In those workplaces, people value what each person has to offer and see the strengths in their differences. People are supported when life events impact their work life, so that illness, injury, age-related disabilities and more do not end a person’s career. Jobs can be customized in ways that amplify and highlight a person’s strengths, and provide accommodations that often make workplaces more effective, efficient and user-friendly for everyone. – Rebecca Salon, Senior Policy Advisor/Principal Investigator

“Due to their long history of adapting and thriving, people with disabilities are natural leaders in grit, collaboration and flexibility at the workplace and beyond. Thus, ensuring people with disabilities are employed benefits everyone – arguably more now than ever before.” – Elizabeth Layman, Administrative Assistant

The Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP)’s LEAD Center, managed by NDI and Social Policy Research Associates, strives to advance equity for people with disabilities. The LEAD Center supports employment strategies, such as Apprenticeship, Customized Employment and Discovery, and Individual Placement and Support (IPS) for people with mental health conditions,  works to reduce physical, social, programmatic and economic barriers.

“As it turns out, folks with disabilities want exactly the same things as everyone else in the community. We worry about saving enough for retirement, paying off the mortgage and putting that last child through college. None of that is possible without the first, critical step toward financial security: employment.” – Tom Foley, Executive Director

NDEAM is held each October to commemorate what people with disabilities bring to America’s workplaces and economy, but this year it’s more than that. It’s a chance to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionally impacted our most vulnerable communities.  It’s a chance to recommit to ensuring everyone has access to employment and community involvement. It’s a chance to realize that our future is better and more secure when everyone is included.

“It’s not just a job, or an opportunity, but a promise of economic, financial and community inclusion.” – Tom Foley, Executive Director

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