The risk and necessity of openness

Many people have a knee-jerk reaction to the term "disability" that causes them to shut down or recoil when in the presence of an actual person who discloses a non-visible condition or looks like they are disabled.

Getting the public past this reaction is a bit like teaching a cat to swim- it can be done- but is an area of life that most individuals whose personal worlds are not touched by or who have not lived with the experience of disability naturally avoid. What can we do that gets us closer to a "post-disabled" world?

Disclosure by a person who has disability to a potential or existing employer is one of the greatest personal and professional risks that can be taken. Because of potentially adverse consequences such as missing out on a job opening or earning additional merit-based responsibilities due to management doubts about the personal fitness of a PwD to perform at advanced levels. Too many choose to stay silent and become adept at doing what is necessary to blend in.

This barrier has taunted and perplexed PwD as well as otherwise-satisfied employers for decades. The lack of public disclosure and civil discourse concerning the experience of disability has maintained the unacceptable and "safe" status quo of general invisibility for PwD. However, this low profile has not really helped to advance the workplace or societal fortunes for two generations of US adults who benefitted from special education law created in 1975 with the passage of PL 94-142.

While they have learned how to deal with a life of constant adjustments or helped by more services/supports making the educational part of life's journey better, most working-age adults with disabilities still don't disclose effectively or at all in the workplace.

Most businesses and corporations ( a few notable exceptions can be found in DiversityInc's annual Top 10) have not moved the ball forward either in substantially changing the company cultural environment enough to claim the higher ground on disability. For example, there is a lack of senior leadership who openly disclose disability, act as mentors to up and coming staff with disability, or will/can alter the view of accommodations as more of an expense to be factored rather than an enhancement to company productivity.

Building this vision as a reality of appropriate support, recognition, and understanding is a shared responsibility to make life better in the places we live. It is past time to bring public, typical examples of successful PEOPLE with disabilities willing and proud to disclose their humanness.

EmployAbility: A multigenerational event proudly proclaiming success, achievement, and employment with disability

Tackling the issues of disclosure head on, the EmployAbility Rally held on October 28, 2010 at the Arizona state Capitol Mall, brought together PwD, business, government agencies, and other recognized minorities for a public conversation about the possibilities of living in a community where one is "successful" and has disability. The purpose of the Rally was covered in an earlier blog, and this edition focuses on what the speakers shared about disability, themselves, and what matters most about recruiting,hiring, and promoting PwD.

The events first speaker, Ken Jacuzzi, a leading national advocate and Arizona hero to the disabled community who has lived with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis since the age of two, stressed the importance of getting out in public and that to achieve true, inclusive civic engagement the word "can"t" must be forever be banished from the vocabulary of PwD. Ken reminded all in attendance that only the can do and will do is to be our focus. He closed his comments with a call to action for each of us "… register to vote, know the issues,propositions, candidates and vote as if your life depended on it- because it does!"

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Ken Jacuzzi, Arizona civil rights champion stressed voting rights and personal advocacy

Our next disability/inability myth-buster, Col. Joey Strickland, state Director of Arizona Department of Veteran's Services is a decorated combat veteran, successful administrator, and disabled veteran who openly talked about his PTSD as part of a national fellowship affecting more than 400,000 vets with service-connected disabilities. Col. Strickland's tireless advocacy will go a long way towards making sure that the sacrifices of American service personnel will be honored by delivering premier social services including housing subsidies, transportation, education, training and employment services-as pr0mised through the Veterans Act of 2010-are delivered.

This will happen more frequently now as new changes for PTSD eligibility not requiring additional, direct-party corroboration to get diagnosis are enforced. These include a VA psychiatrist being able to make the direct diagnostic call. Strickland spoke powerfully that it is time for people with this or other conditions to stop being ashamed of talking about it or not seek treatment. He said his life is a personal example that symptoms of disability don’t have to interfer with daily work, relationships, etc. and said society must do away with stigma associated with hiring the disabled.

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Col. Joey Strickland talks about keeping promises to returning veterans with PTSD and service-connected disabilities

Keynote speaker Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Policy Kathy Martinez, and a person who has been blind since birth, gave compliments to Rally organizers and participants for their understanding of the contributions PwD make to the workplace. Secretary Martinez said the rest of the country could do well to see how empowered we are in Arizona! She also talked about recent federal efforts to bring the issues of employing ability to the policy agenda forefront. Some of these examples can be seen in the national joint public/private campaign at www.whatcanyoudo.org.

Another long-term employment goal taken on by the Obama administration through Executive order calls on all Federal agencies to hire 100,000 PwD in the next 5 years and to provide goals/action plans that show this is happening ( A goal since the Clinton administration). There were members of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance at the Rally who are also tackling how to strengthen Section 503, ensuring existing or new Federal contractors aspire to these benchmarks and can show actual job offers to PwD & inclusion of qualified sub-contractors to businesses run by PwD.

Martinez believes this will open up an additional pipeline of talent and wants shake up current notions of what constitutes accommodations (by thinking of them not just as special or for PwD). Her point is that everyone who goes to work now expects to have a computer, power to run it, chair to work from, etc. and that this is not looked upon as “special. ” What would happen if the public and business community started calling accommodations “productivity tools” ? As Boomer's stay in the workforce grows longer than anticipated, notions about reasonable working conditions at an older age or disability are already changing with it.

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ODEP Chief Kathy Martinez announces major policy changes that enable PwD to succeed in the workplace

Larry Clausen, Executive Director of the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, provided hope and information about collaborative programming for high school students with DD being placed in workforce internships leading to FT employment. Larry shared the stage with Victor, Marybeth, and Jeff, three competitively employed adults with developmental disabilities. These successful adults who have held their jobs for years talked about the reasons they work beyond making money such as how much they feel valued/respected by coworkers, and how passionate they are contributing to their companies. These are values cherished & sought after by any employer were admirably expressed by each person through Larry's questioning.

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Larry Clausen gets successfully employed PwD to share how meaningful work is more than a paycheck

Thomas Means, Senior Auditor for Ernst & Young (EY), talked about how corporate America was beginning to understand the value of hiring a person with disibility. As a highly-trained and competent professional who has profound deafness, Thomas told PwD to learn how to market themselves and that in his experience, one must project business confidence after disclosing. This is because an employer may be inclined to react to the disclosure by limiting opportunities, and that PwD must aggressively & appropriately advocate they want to be viewed and treated like other coworkers seeking similar responsibility. Means said that some employes may overlook the abilities an otherwise qualified PwD, feel like they should protect the worker with disabilities, or that the PwD may not be able to handle greater responsibilities.

Success for the professional with disabilities best comes, according to Means, when one is both assertively seeking and demonstrating the motivation to take on responsibilities. We want to be a “stand out’ because we are equals, and not because we are disabled. We may not be able to hear or see, but we are capable and want to be included in considerations for jobs/responsibilities. Thomas told the Arizona audience he has had to remind his bosses of this. He also said it is up to us as PwD to take these necessary self-promotion and marketing steps to stand out and be considered, because opportunity and success just doesn’t come to you.

Means offered EY as a model employer for all PwD, as they look for highly qualified candidates who can do the jobs needed to be done. As a result of creating an AccessAbilities Network, EY can comfortably ask its' people what it will take for them to do their jobs and the Network helps make this happen.

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Thomas Means stresses how PwD need to assertively remind their employers they seek responsibilities & opportunities- just like all other members of the workforce

The closing speaker, American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) CEO Andy Imparato and adult with bipolar disorder, challenged us with a reminder that if PwD as a community wants independence, economic self-sufficiency, and full societal participation, that we must also want meaningful, competitive employment. Andy gave sobering statistics that only 35% of PwD are now working, that we as a country need events like the EmployAbility Rally in every state capitol and Washington DC telling our elected officials that the past 20 years of flat employment rates for PwD is unacceptable.

Our elected officials and government agency representatives reasons for low employment rates for PwD have recently been attributed to a bad economy and that a lot of other people are out of work too. But, Imparato says, these reasons are similar to the excuses made when the US had a good economy. The reality is our nation's employment of PwD stays flat all the time, while disability entitlements go up. Currently, over

$440 billion dollars per year is spent on SSI,SSDI, and Medicaid as opposed to only $1 billion dollar appropriated nationally for training, and services leading to employment through the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. If we really want people to have quality jobs and everything else that occurs through economic empowerment, America needs to also be willing to make investments in the system to make this happen.

The Disability community has been focused on getting a life in community through independent living. Andy observed that the younger generation with disability wants jobs, wants to go to work like everyone else, and does not want to just sitting on couch watching television, being online, or playing Xbox. Andy closed with asking us to recognize the link between work and power. PwD can't build power if we don’t vote and make sure we work to achieve integrated employment with living wages and benefits. Further, PwD as a community are not going to make if we don’t work together like we did on this Rally, which helps to put talented people in front of hiring managers because we chose to work together.

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Andy Imparato tells the audience how Arizona's EmployAbility Rally sets the standard for the nation to follow

Public disclosure and celebration of disabilities feels... pretty good!

Success means many things to different people, but by any standard or definition, the EmployAbility Rally achieved and shared this gift with everyone. The organizers and Rally committee are conducting an online survey from those who attended to "quantify the ROI" on the experience, build a useful database for follow up, and get ready for new events adding on to the great beginning and sponsor support.

The public and national figures at the Rally clearly saw the potential national impact that can happen if we continue to work together on building similar coalitions of the caring based on themes that address this important issue. The speakers from the Arizona rally need not and must not be isolated examples of success.

We can and will organize, promote, and show up to bigger and broader events until everyone who wants to work has achieved this basic American right of meaningful contribution. Join us.

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