This article was written by I. King Jordan Jr., Disability Programs Consultant at Johnson Scholarship Foundation.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This year I had the opportunity to take part in an excellent Disability Mentoring Day event sponsored by Bender Consulting. Attendees included previous mentees, current mentors and numerous supporters. There were activities that brought together students and employers for informal sessions about career opportunities and mentoring with volunteers at public and private places of employment. One statement at the beginning of the program resonated with me. Joyce Bender, founder and CEO of Bender Consulting said, “We don’t need a disability employment awareness month—we have plenty of awareness. What we need is a disability employment month!”
In one way, Joyce Bender was absolutely right. We certainly need more jobs for people with disabilities. In another way, we still do need more awareness. There are many barriers that must be overcome in order for people with disabilities to achieve jobs.
One of the most important barriers is the lack of knowledge of what disabled people can do. Too often the focus is on the disability—what a person cannot do, instead of what that person can do. Negative attitudes about people with disabilities and ignorance about their abilities too often prevent a genuine interview, much less a job offer.
In 1990 the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed promising greater access and employment for people with disabilities. It was an exciting time and many of us looked forward with anticipation to the positive changes that would result from this very important law. We have been seriously disappointed. The employment rate of people with disabilities has barely ticked upward in more than 30 years since the passage of this landmark legislation.
The board and leadership of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation are very much aware of the statistics that show how adults with disabilities are much more likely to be unemployed than those without disabilities. The Foundation is committed to supporting programs that will help people with disabilities achieve educational success and ultimately employment. Some of the grantees supported by the Foundation serve children in school programs, from preschool through college. Some of the grantees serve young adults and help them acquire first jobs or serve young adults who are employed.
While we can see progress among our grantees, it is clear that there is much more work to do in order to lower the unemployment rate of people with disabilities and help support the ultimate goal of parity between the employment of people with and people without disabilities. It will be good to focus on national disability employment. Focus on jobs, not just awareness.
For more information about the Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s work in funding programs for people with disabilities, click here.