October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a time to celebrate the contributions of America's workers with disabilities both past and present and educate about the value of a workforce inclusive of their skills and talents. In honor of NDEAM, we recently talked to John D. Kemp, one of the nation's foremost authorities on disability employment and current President & CEO of The Viscardi Center, a network of non-profit organizations that offer a lifespan of services, including employment services, for youth and adults with disabilities. As part of this, The Viscardi Center manages the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy.
This year's NDEAM theme is "America's Workforce: Empowering All." What do you feel the significance of this theme is?
JDK: It's inclusive, and it's also encouraging, particularly in its use of the term "empowering." Disability reaches across all other minority populations. People may have multiple underrepresented characteristics, and I see "America's Workforce: Empowering All" as communicating the widest application of that, to include, of course, those of us with disabilities.
The unemployment rate for people with disabilities has declined, alongside that of the general population. But, it is still double that of the general population. What is the key to bridging that gap?
JDK: The fact that our economy is running well is a very positive thing, and the fact that people with disabilities are getting more and more employment opportunities, hopefully at all levels, is, too. I do worry, though, that if the economy weakens, we might be the first ones to be let go. But there is an opportunity to get in and prove ourselves, as we always have to do, and every employee has to do, so overall this is all a very good sign.
At the individual organization level, what is the key to culture change around disability employment?
JDK: It's the adoption of inclusive or universally designed buildings, technologies, policies and processes. That way, when a person with a disability comes to an employer or corporation, there is an opportunity to be assimilated, in all ways—as a customer, as an employee, as a supplier and as a leader. First, there needs to be cultural acceptance, often an "aha" moment, on the part of leadership, that is then embedded throughout the organization. They should be creating an infrastructure for inclusion.
What other things, beyond employer actions, need to happen or change in order to increase the employment rate of people with disabilities?
JDK: We need an overall look at policy and where changes may create more opportunities to accommodate more needs. Our experiences supporting working parents can serve as an example here. We need to eliminate disincentives and conflicting federal and state policies that force people to make decisions about whether to work, for instance, based on fear of losing health care and other benefits. We need to harmonize our policies, because there are still significant barriers to work for people with disabilities at the street level. We also need to ensure all opportunities are open to people with disabilities, including entrepreneurship. Finally, is there systemic access throughout our communities? For instance, is there accessible transportation to social and recreational opportunities? Civic participation and leadership roles we can all feel free to pursue? These wider considerations ensure employees with disabilities are embraced not only by their employers, but also by their communities of interest that ‘complete' all of our employees.
If an employer was to ask, "If we can do only one thing to be more disability inclusive, what should it be?" how would you respond?
JDK: First, it's actual hiring. Nothing creates change like the presence of people with disabilities to demonstrate what we're talking about here. Then, they should be bold and brave. They should take it to the extreme, by making hiring of diverse populations, including people with disabilities, part of the performance review process, so that supervisors are held accountable for delivering on a company's commitment to diversity and inclusion. They need to add this into performance criteria. IBM is one company known for doing this.
Employers sometimes express trepidation when it comes to the word "accommodation," thinking about it only in the context of legal obligation. What do you say to those employers?
JDK: I would borrow from across the pond, in the U.K., where they use a different term that is in many ways better, and that's "reasonable adjustment." The term "accommodation" has its roots in a case in the 1970s, when the federal courts upheld a claim that an airline had an affirmative duty to make an accommodation for someone's religious beliefs. That's where it came from, and it was then used in the Rehabilitation Act and later in the ADA. So, it's been in our lexicon for 40 years, and we have a whole body of case law developed around it. But, it is a bit of a lightning rod. Really, "adjustment" or "productivity tool" is better, and we do this, or should do this, naturally for anybody and everybody. Smart employers accommodate all employees to perform their best.
Disability inclusion is about more than just jobs. It's about a whole array of employment supports without which work would not be possible for all of us, disability or not. Are there things employers can do to help increase access to such supports?
JDK: This is a challenge for employers, to not look at employment in isolation. I would encourage them to understand and appreciate how people get to work, for instance, or what role Personal Care Assistance Services might play in making work possible. Employers can be active in promoting more inclusive policies, to help their current, and future, workforce. We've seen this here on Long Island related to transportation; the way the systems work creates difficulties for some of our employees to get home at night, so we voiced our concerns about how that impacts us. Health care is also important, and something employers have a large impact on. They should offer packages that are flexible to the different needs different employees may have or develop in time.
You've spoken about the need for more disability representation in corporate leadership. Why is this so important?
JDK: It encourages others by dispelling myths and providing role models to emulate. Also, personally, I think there are more out there than we know. Many CEOs and presidents have probably aged into disability but may be in denial. That's because there is a cultural divide that still associates disability as "less." So, those who have disclosed and acknowledged it, and even embraced it, should be recognized. It's healthy for their workforces to know that people with disabilities can be productive and in fact lead. Being open and proud can help others. This goes for board members, too. Every publicly traded organization has a board, and it's time for people with disabilities to be at the table.
Speaking of leaders, today you're the President and CEO of The Viscardi Center. What is The Viscardi Center?
JDK: We're a network of nonprofits that serve youth and adults with disabilities across the lifespan. Our goal is to empower through education and employment. We operate the Henry Viscardi School, as well as Abilities Inc. and the National Business and Disability Council. Through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, we are also honored to house the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion, through which we assist employers, including federal contractors, to recruit, hire, retain and advance people with disabilities. The foundation for much of EARN's work is an employer policy framework, called Inclusion@Work, that can help companies build the infrastructure for inclusion I mentioned earlier.
The Viscardi Center is named for Dr. Henry Viscardi, Jr. Can you tell us about him?
JDK: Gladly! I first met him at an Easter Seals convention, when I was nine and being introduced as the organization's 1960 poster child. He was a fierce advocate for people with disabilities, and like me, he had prosthetic legs. My dad and I were in the audience, and he was just on fire, giving a strong and passionate speech. My dad leaned over and said, "You can be like him one day," and it shaped my life. He became a role model. Fast forward 17 years, and I got to work with him as a young lawyer. Here at The Viscardi Center, and in particular the Henry Viscardi School, his lore is off the charts. He did something new and novel for the time and deserves recognition. My job is to maintain his legacy and build upon it and honor it. That is what I aim to do every day.