by Carmen Jones
In 1986, a car accident left me paralyzed. When I returned back to school almost a year later, I still did everything career-bound college students are advised to do – got good grades, held leadership positions in student government, and became involved in a host of extra-curricular activities. Yes, I was now a person living with a disability, but I had no intention of derailing my plans to pursue a career in marketing.
But when it was time to start my post-graduation employment search, unlike most of my classmates, I received no guidance from the Hampton University Career Planning and Placement Office. Looking back, I know they were willing, but we were all on unchartered territory. I was one of a handful of undergraduate students with a disability and they didn’t know how to support or connect me to resources or recruiters from companies or organizations with inclusive hiring practices.
So I was left to navigate the job market on my own.
I started out hopeful. During my senior year I had a number of initial interviews, and two of those companies actually called me back for a second round. Yet despite my accomplishments, and perceiving that I did well in those interviews, I wheeled across the stage with a degree in one hand and no job offer in the other.
While my parents are sweet and patient people, they made it clear that I had to get a job. Heeding their demand, I continued to beat the proverbial pavement to no avail.
Through a series of unexpected circumstances, Ralph Shelman, the executive director of The Peninsula Center for Independent Living, read an article about my accident and returning to school. He reached out to the university and, fortunately, Hampton contacted my parents to relay the message. A week or so later, I was in Ralph’s office interviewing for an Independent Living Counselor position. He hired me on the spot, and I began providing guidance and counsel to people who had their disabilities much longer than I, some from birth. On paper, I was woefully unqualified for this position, but Ralph gave me a chance.
Since full-time employment was my goal, I didn’t really think about having any practical knowledge about the disability community or counseling. I had only been a person with a disability for less than three years and had no prior experience navigating the community and social supports for myself, let alone helping others. I jumped right in, and my boss wasn’t deterred by my learning curve. He had a solutions mindset, one that was willing to give a new graduate an opportunity to gain a foothold on the world. A mindset that could see past my wheelchair to my potential. A mindset that was willing to open the doors a little wider for someone with a disability.
And without that mindset—that opportunity—I wouldn’t be where I am today.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) and the time of year when the disability community and many employers spotlight disability employment and inclusion in small businesses, local/state/federal agencies, and corporations. NDEAM, supported by August 2016 data from the Department of Labor, reminds us that the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is 11.3%, while the rate amongst people without disabilities is 4.8% – almost 3 times higher than the general population.
As disability inclusion has grown, NDEAM can be a catalyst for moving beyond awareness to creating an opportunity mindset among decision makers. Much like my former boss, employers with an opportunity mindset seek to address what’s needed to open doors wider to enable people with disabilities to apply for positions they are most qualified for. It looks at what people can offer, removes the stigma of disability, and understands that diversity of thought and experience makes for a richer culture.
There are some initial questions that you and your team can answer to begin developing an opportunity mindset:
- Start with why. Why is disability inclusion important for your organization?
- Be honest. What has your organization done to identify, recruit, onboard, and retain individuals with disabilities? What was the outcome?
- Have a champion. Who is the leader that has the authority to drive disability inclusion?
- What additional leaders and/or departments need to be engaged across the enterprise?
- Buy-in is Critical. What are your internal stakeholder’s biggest objections about disability employment? What steps can your team take to counter objections?
- Define a measurable goal. For example – The XYZ organization will hire a certain percentage of employees with disabilities by a target date. By making this clear your organization can outline action steps to achieve this goal.
- Build partnerships. What disability organizations do we need to build relationships with to access talent, locally and/or nationally?
I hope these questions will help your organization take important first steps to develop an opportunity mindset during NDEAM. If this discussion guide is beneficial to you, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.