Last December, according to Disability Scoop, the unemployment rate for the U.S. was 9.5%. Among people with disabilities, the unemployment rate was 45 percent higher, at 13.8%.
There are many possible and sometimes conflicting reasons for the 45% difference, but we can generally agree on a significant cause of this disparity: negative perceptions on the potential performance of people with disabilities in the workplace. It is an unfortunate fact of history — we would all be living in a perfect world if everyone would be completely tolerant of people with disabilities. As the Afghani character Rahim Khan said to Amir in Khaled Hosseini’s novel Kite Runner, “In the end, the world always wins. That’s just the way of things.” However, a subtle shift in perceptions makes a whole world of difference in improving tolerance toward this large and significant group.
Someone thinks a blind person would not be able to lead guided tours in museums, a person with no arms cannot operate a forklift or other heavy machinery, or a person with Down syndrome cannot lead an independent lifestyle.
Are these perceptions always true? The problem with these perceptions is that they are all negative-oriented – he can’t, she can’t, they can’t. It may be true in some, but not all, cases that each of these people cannot perform these functions. But that misses the point.
When you think about someone you are hiring for your business, consider: Can she do it? Can he get this done? What can that person contribute that others cannot?
Can a person with an extremely severe hearing loss be an expert in music? Yes. He was Ludwig von Beethoven. Can a person with one hand become a top pitcher in Major League Baseball, and finish third in Cy Young voting in 1991? Yes. He was Jim Abbott. Can a person with one leg finish a marathon in just over 3 hours? Of course! Amy Palmiero-Winters finished the 2006 Chicago Marathon with a time of 3:06.
How did they achieve what they set out to do? Generally, those with disabilities who achieved their goals tended to show high levels of perseverance, originality and a determination to excel. Beethoven loved music, Abbott loved baseball, and Palmiero-Winters loved marathons (even ultra-marathons), so nothing was going to stop them. It was a matter of having the heart and energy to do what they loved. To have the passion to do what they enjoy, trumps any disability these people have.
To address the issue of below-average workplace hiring of people with disabilities, an aggressive $4 million advertising campaign led by a coalition of states and non-profit organizations dedicated to people with disabilities was launched for the first half of 2010 in various U.S. media channels. Titled “Think Beyond the Label,” the campaign is running spots on television, in online and offline print, and National Public Radio to encourage businesses to consider employing people with disabilities. (Link to Abledbody.com story on the campaign.)
“Think Beyond the Label” is not a typical staid, serious public service announcement. It is a witty take on the contributions that disabled people make to the workplace. A television commercial pokes fun at coffee-drinking-impaired colleagues, while eCards are sent to friends and family pointing to, among other things, a “pattern-impaired” woman who wears mismatched clothes. Generally, the goal of this campaign is to inform and educate businesses on the value people with disabilities bring to the workplace. In other words, people with disabilities, given the proper skillset and experience, bring as much value as anyone with that skillset would bring to a specific job, so it becomes a matter of evaluating each person on his or her merits and credentials.
“Think Beyond the Label” tackles popular myths that pervade the employment process for people with disabilities. In this list of myths is one popular belief: that accommodations for people with disabilities are expensive. In fact, according to “Think Beyond the Label,” a large majority of accommodations costs less than $500, which is less than a week’s pay for a person on a $30,000 annual salary.
One intangible that is not mentioned in this campaign, but which is a major part of a disabled person’s approach to life, is the value of being creative in a world that is stacked against people with a physical, mental or cognitive handicap. Having endured a lifetime or near-lifetime of living with a handicap in a “world that always wins,” a person with a disability almost always comes up with an innovative, original way to cope with the handicap and make every effort to lead a high quality of life, no matter how severe the disability.
No one would dispute that there are two things that accurately describe a successful person with a disability, but which are not found in his or her resume: that this person has perseverance and a never-say-die attitude. Adapting to a disability, and coping in a world that is not always designed to accommodate this disability, takes a lot of effort and a lot of energy — and the successful ones achieved what they set out to do because they loved their jobs and really wanted to make it work. Those are not bad qualities to have in any job.