By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR
Deb Dagit. Photo by Steven Purcell.
When Deb Dagit, vice president and chief diversity officer for Merck & Co. Inc., took the stage for the closing keynote presentation of the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN) 2009 Annual Conference held in National Harbor, Md. Sept. 15-19, 2009, she told employers to take a risk. “Be the person that sees what is possible. Evaluate a person with a disability to determine what they are capable of, not what they have not yet demonstrated.”
Dagit, a little person, said she has encountered plenty of people who have rejected her on sight, including one prospective employer who cancelled a day of interviews after treating her to a first class flight and a night at a five-star hotel.
“We have not yet achieved the vision of economic empowerment and meaningful employment for people with disabilities that we all dreamed of,” she said. “I hear the same story, time and time again, of people stuck in dead-end jobs where they are underutilized but who stay to have access to benefits, income and socialization,” she said.
She charged the audience of disability advocates, business leaders and people with disabilities to redouble their efforts as the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act approaches in 2010.
Among her suggestions:
- Make sure business leaders who are differently-abled are visible as role models.
- Avoid using the word “special” when referring to things related to the disability world, because for many it has a negative connotation that means “different from one’s peers.” The word “disabled” can be problematic as well, according to Dagit, who said that “firms with a global footprint might want to use ‘differently-abled’ because it translates better to other languages.”
- Instead of providing general awareness training, Dagit recommends that companies invest in practical tools and information that can be accessed by managers and employees whenever they need them.
- Make sure that programs for people who are differently-abled continue after the person is hired and accommodated.
- Develop partnerships with military leadership to help transition returning veterans. “It is imperative we invest time and effort in understanding the transferable skills they bring to the workplace,” Dagit noted.
- If an employee resource group for people with disabilities is available, Dagit suggests the group include employees with disabilities and caregivers of people with disabilities. But she recommends separating and articulating clearly the needs and priorities of the two sub-groups so everyone’s needs are addressed.
Dagit noted that those with hidden disabilities might choose to keep their disability hidden because of social stigma, fear of negative career impact and their upbringing. “When you are a person with a disability, you are taught your whole life to make your disability a non-issue,” she said, even though other types of diversity are now celebrated. “It’s important that we teach children from a young age to be proud of being different.”
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Government Leaders Recommend Employment of People with Disabilities, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Sept. 25, 2009
Workers with Disabilities Exceed Expectations, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Sept. 23, 2009
A Passion for Diversity, HR Magazine, March 2008