Ahead of National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October, the federal government has made moves to support the employment prospects of individuals with disabilities.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced in August that it's making available more than $69 million in grants to states to develop innovative strategies to help marginalized youth and young adults with disabilities join the workforce.
"When it comes to finding and exploring opportunities for employment, youth and young adults with disabilities have historically faced systemic barriers related to their disabilities," Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy Taryn M. Williams said in a statement. "The funding opportunity announced today will help us identify policies and practices that enable these young people to transition to employment successfully and move us toward a more equitable and inclusive workforce."
In September, the DOL's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) awarded $2 million in funds to Cornell University to operate an employer-focused, disability policy development and technical assistance center.
The Cornell grant is part of the agency's Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion program, designed to better recruit, hire, promote and retain individuals with disabilities, particularly those from traditionally marginalized groups.
Craig Leen, an attorney with K&L Gates in Washington, D.C., and a former director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, has long advocated for the rights and employment prospects of people with disabilities. He spoke with SHRM Online about his passion for assisting those in the disability community, the progress people with disabilities have made in the workforce and why more work is still needed to create a more inclusive society for these individuals.
SHRM Online: Can you share what makes you so passionate about the workplace rights of people with disabilities? Is this passion fueled by personal or professional experiences?
Leen: Everyone in this country should have the opportunity to pursue happiness and the American Dream, including through the dignity of work. For years, however, labor force participation has been very low and unemployment very high for individuals with disabilities. This is caused by multiple factors, with lack of accessibility, lack of accommodation, and stereotypes/stigmas being a significant part.
We must stand for accessibility and disability inclusion as a country, both employers and employees alike. We are otherwise unjustly denying access to the American Dream and missing out on a huge source of underutilized skilled labor.
When I was Coral Gables [Fla.] city attorney, I worked to ensure that "the City Beautiful" was accessible and inclusive towards people with disabilities, helping create the Principles of Inclusion and numerous policies and programs focused on disability inclusion, including recreational programs for youth with disabilities. One other initiative I worked on was developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for police in interacting with subjects with autism, which was combined with extensive training of police officers. These SOPs helped facilitate positive engagement by officers with autistic witnesses and subjects and would help officers to not misinterpret a lack of eye contact or difficulty responding in a given case as resistance to the officer's orders when it is not resistance.
My daughter Alex's autism and intellectual disability motivated me to become an advocate, as I saw how she was effectively excluded from so many places, activities and opportunities, and I wanted our hometown of the Gables to be a place where all were welcomed. I am now doing the same here in D.C.
This is why, as OFCCP director, I was so engaged with Section 503 [of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973] and developing comprehensive best practices that employers could adopt to increase disability inclusion. I had seen in Coral Gables what a difference that could make in the lives of individuals with disabilities and how much society was missing in failing to fully include and accommodate. I was very proud of the major focus on disability inclusion when I was at OFCCP, including the development of the Section 503 Focused Review Program and numerous related best practices.
I now focus much of my work on helping employers develop accessibility and disability inclusion programs, often as part of a broader diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEI&A) program. I also continue to serve in federal and local governmental roles, including as vice chair of the DC Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—where we are presently focused on studying equal access to special education and transportation in D.C.—and as a member of the DC Family Support Council.
SHRM Online: What is your reaction to the federal government recently funding programs to help people with disabilities land jobs?
Leen: It's wonderful to see, and [the investments] will make a major impact. Disability inclusion is a bipartisan issue, and administrations from both parties should continue to focus on enhancing employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
Unfortunately, sometimes disability gets left out of workplace efforts to enhance diversity inclusion. This should not be the case. I would like to take a moment to commend the Office of Disability Employment Policy for these programs specifically, and more generally for supporting programs like the Job Accommodation Network and the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion.
ODEP has made a bigger impact in favor of promoting disability employment than any other entity, in my view.
SHRM Online: Recent reports show that employment among people with disabilities has hit a post-pandemic high. What do you attribute to this rise in employment among those with disabilities, and is it a sign that companies are more willing to hire them?
Leen: The increased availability of remote work has been the biggest driver, in my view. A tight labor market has helped as well. Further, businesses continue to become more accessible, both through increased compliance with accommodation and nondiscrimination requirements and through website accessibility as well.
Hopefully, more organizations will begin by including disability in their DEI&A programs—only about 4 percent do, according to the Harvard Business Review—and by prioritizing accessibility and accommodations in employment.
Employers should consider specific employment programs for people with disabilities, including Autism at Work and Neurodiversity in the Workplace programs. This approach has led to increased employment of individuals with disabilities in the federal government through Schedule A, and it could work in the private sector as well.
The Department of Labor has supported these programs, and they are a great way to increase representation of employees with disabilities. Likewise, employers should establish a relationship with the local vocational rehabilitation agency in their area as a great potential source of skilled labor.
SHRM Online: Recent research by SHRM shows that nearly half (47 percent) of employees with invisible disabilities, such as autism or a mental health condition, have not disclosed their condition at work. How can companies foster a more inclusive, comfortable environment for these workers?
Leen: Individuals with disabilities face many unwarranted obstacles to employment, including a low labor force participation rate, high unemployment rate and significant pay gaps. There are also concerns that stereotypes and stigmas surrounding disability may lead to less opportunities if a disability is disclosed because of condescending or discriminatory attitudes.
Employees with disabilities will generally do what they believe is in their best interests, as they should. Employers need to develop a work environment where disclosing a nonapparent or invisible disability does not cause risk for an employee and may even open up new opportunities, such as requesting helpful accommodations or participating in a disability inclusion employee resource group (ERG).
SHRM Online: Is there a way for companies to support employees with disabilities that isn't widely discussed?
Leen: Yes. When creating new workplace policies, including a disability advocate in the room can lead to much more inclusive policies. Also, CEOs making a statement to the entire workforce that people with disabilities are welcome and that accommodation requests are encouraged can make all the difference in the world.
Further, having a disability inclusion ERG that has strong support from leadership leads to higher rates of disability self-identification and a more satisfied and productive workplace. And one of the most important ways to support individuals with disabilities is to create a chief accessibility officer (CAO) position, reporting to the CEO and board [of directors].
The CAO would be dedicated to accessibility and disability inclusion in the workplace. This is a best practice that the U.S. government itself should adopt. I've been advocating for several years that the White House should have a CAO of the United States, coordinating accessibility policy across the U.S. government and answering to the president directly. That would be a game changer and would be a great example for organizations across the country.