By Jessica Queener
Each October, as a country, we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) to highlight that people with disabilities CAN and WANT to work. This year’s theme is "America’s Workforce: Empowering All" to demonstrate to employers and federal agencies the importance of embracing diversity through the means of empowering all employees. Unfortunately, the Department of Labor’s statistics continue to indicate that people with disabilities are underutilized in our workforce. Currently, as of September 2018, 21.4% of people with disabilities participate in the workforce compared to 68.2% of people without disabilities. Given this, it’s important to ask ourselves, “How can we begin to empower more people with disabilities to join the workforce? What can we do to achieve equitable outcomes for people with disabilities?”
If you work with, mentor, or otherwise know any youth or young people with disabilities (this could include family members or neighbors), here are some key ideas on how to empower them to join America’s workforce.
Work Early, Work Often
Youth and young adults with disabilities need opportunities to work through volunteering, job shadowing, internships, and paid work experiences. Does your organization participate in Disability Mentoring Day? If not, learn how your organization can participate through the American Association of People with Disabilities’ National Disability Mentoring Day events! As a young kid, I was exposed to the Baby-Sitter’s Club books—so my first paid job was being a baby-sitter to the neighborhood kids. Also, I was introduced to politics at a young age. At age 14, I volunteered to work in state and national campaigns. This exposure led me to develop a deep interest in politics and history that pushed me to seek out opportunities that landed me my very first job with benefits at age 16 with the United States Congressional Page Program. The fact that I started working early and often—trying out new things—not being afraid to fail—led to my own personal empowerment. In other words, encourage youth and young people with disabilities to work early and work often!
Network, Network, and Network
Networking is a skill that develops throughout a person’s career. Unfortunately, it is a social skill that is often overlooked for job preparation for young people with disabilities. While schools and programs often focus on assisting young people with gaining the work experiences to add to their resume, sometimes they forget to focus on building networking and relationship-building skills which are critical to obtaining employment. In my career, the job opportunities that have been offered have been based upon my relationships with people I have met and collaborated with in my work. As I progressed in my career, new positions offered were not always advertised to the public. Encourage young people with disabilities to become comfortable with meeting and striking up a conversation with new people. Think about offering to young people the opportunity to shadow you to learn how to facilitate networking conversations at events. In turn, you can shadow your young person to provide them with feedback at future networking events.
It is up to the young person with a disability to decide whether or not to disclose their disability or disabilities to their employer or potential employer. As a person with a cochlear implant, I chose to disclose before every job interview that I may need accommodations during the interview. However, I chose not to disclose my mental health condition to my employer until the last interview—this usually means that I can seriously see myself working with this organization and I need to know if they can and will accommodate my needs. For each person, the decision to disclose their disability or disabilities is personal and individualized. If you are working with or know a young person with a disability, encourage them to review the 411 on Disability Disclosure. In addition, for guidance on how to facilitate conversations about disclosure with young people, check out the companion workbook for adults and families.
These key ideas are the beginning steps of building empowerment in young people with disabilities. In order to achieve successful outcomes for youth and young people with disabilities, we have to be willing to rise up for equity by intentionally empowering young people with disabilities to be a part of America’s workforce. The opportunities to build empowerment should be happening in our schools, workplaces, and in our communities. By empowering youth with disabilities today, we are creating a better future for America.