Did you know that October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM)? It’s a month I always look forward to. It started in 1945 as “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week” after a law was passed to recognize the occasion. The name changed in 1962 to remove the word “physically” so that people with all types of disabilities could be recognized. And by 1988, it was renamed to NDEAM and extended to a full month.
This year is the 75th anniversary of honoring NDEAM and while I always make a point of recognizing the occasion, I definitely think we should not only acknowledge, but also actively celebrate the skills, talents, and contributions of people with disabilities every month. We have so much to offer the workforce, often thanks to what we’ve learned from our life experiences: creativity, problem-solving, flexibility, adaptability, and open-mindedness, to name just a few.
The theme for NDEAM this year is “Increasing Access and Opportunity,” which is particularly fitting right now, especially as society grapples with many factors impacting the economy and the workforce. Disabled people are still unemployed at a percentage far higher than nondisabled people, but I believe we have the power to shift the statistics in a positive direction. We have the power to increase access to the workplace and to increase job opportunities for the disability community.
This starts with breaking down stigma that people with disabilities encounter in workplaces and changing mindsets that deem disability as a negative thing or as something that makes them less of a person. Unfortunately, this is still all too common. While I can only speak to my specific experiences as a wheelchair user, misconceptions about all disabled people abound in the workforce.
I have definitely experienced employment discrimination directly related to being a wheelchair user. While applying for jobs early in my career, I mentioned my need for wheelchair access while on a phone call with a potential employer and it almost immediately led to the conversation being cut short. I’ve also been in situations where potential employers have seen me in person in my wheelchair and suddenly become very uncomfortable. In a strange way, I know I’m lucky, because these experiences are just some of several encounters that motivated me to focus my work on disability advocacy. I know this isn’t the case for so many people who struggle to find work because of disability-based prejudice that far too many employers still harbor. But in my case, disability advocacy isn’t just part of my career; it’s my passion.
My hope as a disability advocate is that the values of equity and inclusion in the workplace that we recognize during NDEAM become not just a once-yearly observance, but rather a guiding principle all year round. My mobility equipment doesn’t make me less worthy of employment. No one’s disability makes them any less worthy of employment.
About Emily Ladau: Emily is a blogger and serves as the editor in chief of Rooted in Rights. She co-hosts a podcast and has been recognized as an emerging leader in the disability community. Emily lives on Long Island and enjoys traveling and trying new restaurants. Click here to learn more about Emily.