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Diversity, equity and inclusion have become common buzzwords in job applications over the past year and a half. That mainly has to do with a public outcry for better, more equitable practices and policies from employers to foster accountability. For employers, that looks like not only obtaining, but retaining a workforce which reflects the makeup of their surrounding environment and community. While people often think of race and gender in relation to DEI efforts, the scope of accountability expands much further beyond those demographics. Disability awareness remains a mystery that is seldom approached or acknowledged in these discussions for fair and equal treatment in the workplace.
Before diving into problem solving for the lack of inclusion people with disabilities experience, it’s important to understand what a disability even is and how it can range from physical impairments or restrictions to so-called “invisible” ailments. In simple CDC terms, a disability is a condition that limits a person’s ability to engage in certain activities or interact with the world around them. With three different dimensions—impairment, activity limitation and participation restrictions—the range of needs people with disabilities experience is vast and diverse.
While some disabilities present physically, such as blindness or cerebral palsy, others are imperceptible, like people with high-functioning autism, depression or people experiencing chronic pain or fatigue. It’s important to recognize the extensive reach that the term disability encompasses in order to understand how viable solutions can be created to reach all people.
Now, the reality of living with a disability in Iowa and the United States is that the systems in place don’t necessarily work, especially with the lack of general public awareness about disabilities. That lack of understanding is why people with disabilities ages 16 and up reached an unemployment rate of 12.6 percent in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. People without disabilities have a significantly smaller unemployment rate of 7.9 percent.
In Iowa, the rate of unemployment for people with disabilities was 9.1 percent in 2019—a number which has grown since the pandemic, although no official state government statistics have been released yet.
And having a higher unemployment rate is even more harmful to people with disabilities because they have higher costs to meet their basic health needs than someone without a disability does.
As work shortages scourge the nation in virtually every industry, employers claim they’re looking to fill the gaps as quickly as possible, although fair wages have also been a matter of contention for those looking to be employed. Left out of this larger state and national conversation of work shortages are people with disabilities. So, instead of reaching out in the ways one conventionally would, consider how a person with a disability might add value to business and service. Tax credit programs in Iowa are even designed to benefit employers that hire people with disabilities.
In order to move forward, employers must redefine what DEI looks like in the workplace. Inclusivity is a behavior—not just a policy or buzzword to use in the hiring process. The way forward is to provide equal access. That doesn’t just mean offering the same benefits and positions to all people, but going the extra mile to close the gaps between marginalized folks and those that have the privilege of traditional systems working in their favor.
The reality is everyone needs to change their mindset of what a disability is and who might have it. One in four Americans lives with a disability. That requires employers to have a lot more nuance in understanding what a disability is in order to properly accommodate all walks of life. The result is a sustainable system in which people with disabilities can contribute to the workforce and help progress economic growth while obtaining financial stability.
Nichole Shaw is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org