October 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, yet the 2019 employment rate for people with disabilities hovered at 19.3 percent. This is discouraging when you consider that 25 percent of the American population have a disability. Compounding this disparity is the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on long-term health effects. With varying degrees of respiratory or cardiac issues, challenges with motor control and/or debilitating mental health experienced by people with COVID-19, the United States faces the prospect of having the largest permanent disability population since AIDS and HIV, if not polio. As the most diverse group of legislators ever elected, the 117th Congress must lead the way to accommodate this new reality in our workforce by making their congressional offices more inclusive for employees with disabilities.
For decades, ableism has prevented real gains for people with disabilities, particularly workers. The COVID 19-pandemic, with its focus on increasing workplace access in a time of social and physical isolation, may create opportunities for inclusionary practices. Though welcomed, it comes at a price, as many of these ideas—such as teleworking and openness to explore non-traditional, remote workplaces—were championed decades ago by disability advocates. As we consider solutions that honor the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) on Capitol Hill, we must acknowledge the hurt done to the disability community from ignoring that same call to action. Doing so has forced disabled employees to endanger our mental and physical health to maintain a paycheck and health insurance. By increasing the participation of employees with disabilities on congressional staffs and in elected office, our legislative solutions are more reflective of the American experience and responsive to the needs of all people.
In that pursuit, I’d like to share three areas of focus to create inclusive practices on Capitol Hill.
Ensuring physical and programmatic access
Going beyond hiring
Utilizing disability as a lens across other diverse communities
Physical and Programmatic Access
An organization’s inclusion strategy should include access to physical spaces and equal access and inclusion to employee programs, benefits, and culture. As the nation continues to recover from the pandemic and congressional staff rethink what workplace access means in Hill offices, it is critical that office managers take the time to reevaluate their accommodations plans and equally consider the unique needs of workers with disabilities. Remote work is no longer an acceptable excuse to delay or deny in-office accommodations or accessibility provisions for employees with disabilities.
For hiring managers and DEIB champions on Capitol Hill, key questions to consider include the following:
How inclusive is the culture in your office? Are events hosted at inaccessible locations? When you plan employee retreats and off-site planning sessions, are you mindful of accessibility (e.g., ASL interpreters, scent-free, close to accessible transit) and other requirements among your staff?
Is disability present in your office’s diversity statements and included when you discuss core constituencies?
Are employees with disabilities afforded access to the same recognition and professional development programs as your non-disabled employees?
Do you and your team engage with external disability organizations in public and highlight it as you would with any other constituency organization?
Are your internal and external communication platforms(e.g., office website, constituent newsletters, etc.,) accessible to employees and job candidates with disabilities?
Moving Past “Hire the Handicapped”
For too long, disability employment strategy has focused on hiring as the beginning and end goal. This transactional approach is short-sighted and driven by an instinct to “look for” a disability or a checked box in a job application. Why are the expectations for disabled employees so low? Why is success for a disabled employee “a job,” versus a career? And who exactly is an employee with a disability? An emphasis on hiring is superficial diversity without meaningful inclusion.
If you are looking for “compliance points” on disability hiring, it’s more complicated than you think. Disabled employees may already exist in your workplaces; however, it’s frankly not safe for many to come out without accessibility and inclusion recognized as values in an office. It takes me about six months at a job, as an apparently disabled person, for other staff members with disabilities to “invite me in.” This means that non-visible chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia, Cohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and postpartum depression may go unrecognized. Disabilities and illnesses caused by lead contamination or other forms of environmental injustice may also go under the radar. It’s important that Hill offices avoid promoting an inaccurate or limiting image of how disability looks. It is even more important that we go beyond hiring to identify leadership development opportunities for workers with disabilities so that they engage and co-create an office where they can bring their whole selves and their authentic voice to the decision-making table.
Disability Inclusion as a Lens that Benefits Everyone
Beyond access to telework and accommodations, building an office inclusive of people with disabilities improves the lives of all workers. For example, if employees feel comfortable talking about mental illness, staff will feel empowered to take a “mental health day,” returning when they feel refreshed. Reviewing your member website to ensure content and design is accessible to users with disabilities may lead to a wider constituent base, more website traffic, and a better overall user experience.
The call for increased access in the workplace is not something that comes at the expense of non-disabled employees. In fact, it brings the opposite result, as thoughtful, inclusive policies open up new ways to better perform work and improve overall efficiency. This is the spirit of true DEIB and the work of the Representative Democracy cohort. At the end of the day, this path of inclusion strengthens our institutions.
Employers have had over three decades to implement robust disability inclusion programs, yet the data tells us much work remains to be done. Today, as our elected leaders and policymakers continue efforts to manage and contain COVID-19, a deeper understanding of “access” in a time of social distancing and the threat of a pending disability wave may move us over the finish line.