People with disabilities have been underestimated repeatedly in school and in the workforce. We should never assume that someone might see his or her disability as a tragedy. Many people with great challenges have created, built, and found tremendous success in their lives.
When I became a certified teacher, three of the most important lessons I learned from my mentors were the following:
- Labels limit
- The importance of getting to know, see, and listen to all students
- How to take content and connect it to every student’s life outside the classroom—this helps to drive emotion, and creates an opportunity for real learning
The three areas mentioned above must be addressed to help persons with disabilities thrive.
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In 2019, 19.3% of persons with a disability were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The employment-population ratio for persons without a disability was 66.3%.
Also, according to HR DIVE, workers with disabilities provide substantial economic benefits to local communities, according to a study recently released by Melwood.
The Melwood Economic Impact Study included 25 counties in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. where Melwood employed more than 1,200 workers of differing abilities.
Melwood said, “Workers with disabilities earned about $27.7 million in wages, and paid more than half its workforce’s $11.9 million in federal, state, and local taxes in 2017.”
Why Education And Workforce Support Is Vital To Small Business
One of the most critical topics in public education and workforce training is providing ongoing learning and opportunities for those who face a disability.
Today, this discussion is gaining traction in the pandemic era—people who face unique challenges are heavily impacted by job loss, and meet insufficient support for work from home opportunities. Although there are many programs out there, finding useful education alternatives can be hard to come by.
By number, people who have disabilities are the nation’s largest minority group.
Yet, this sector, already beset by insufficient funding, is one of the groups least supported by private and federal funds to ameliorate the damage COVID has caused.
Employment statistics are incredibly bleak. For example, as of 2018, only 18% of those with disabilities were employed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The sum inched up slightly during 2019, but had reached only 19.3% even before COVID.
What Can Educators And Employers Do To Help The Community?
For perspective, I interviewed Ric Nelson, an individual who faces his own challenges. Nelson holds three degrees—an Associate’s, a Bachelor’s Degree in Small Business Management and Business Administration, and most recently, he completed a Master’s Degree in Public Administration.
Nelson sits on eight boards, has chaired the A.K. Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education, and currently serves as Advocacy and Outreach Specialist for The Arc, a private organization providing support for the disabled with 600 U.S. locations.
Now 37, Nelson was named Alaska’s Top Forty Under 40 by the Alaska Journal of Commerce.
Nelson has cerebral palsy, and requires full-time assistance to manage his physical needs. However, he is increasingly expanding his efforts beyond Alaska to support advances in all 50 states.
Funding Is Imperative, And We Need Much More
As Forbes Contributor Andrew Pulrang has noted, in a little under 50 years, the U.S. has moved from a lack of rights for the disabled—to the legal right of access in public education. Students with disabilities are entitled to receive public education in a completely or mostly mainstream environment.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA) outlines roles and rights for students, parents, teachers, and schools.
The IDEA program is part of an Individualized Education Plan or (IEP) for students who require assistance as needed that is outside of the traditional classroom setting.
An IEP offers individualized services and tools to make each student’s education as equal and effective as possible—and in the most integrated setting appropriate for each child.
The program intends to lend ongoing support and opportunities (by force of law) founded by the principle that no child should be segregated from the general school community without an essential or unavoidable reason.
It is vital for IDEA to be fully funded, Nelson says. However, equally important is that every program is interpreted well, created for the individual needs, and enacted well in practice.
Educating Teachers Is Vital
Attitudes toward working and teaching those with disabilities begin at home and move into the classroom.
Unfortunately, many educators have not been trained in working with students who face unique challenges or already have an IEP.
Educators will always need to practice lifelong learning to best educate themselves on interacting with and integrating disabled students.
Make Solid Choices
Inadvertently, perhaps, educators can make poor choices due to a shortfall of experience, training, and a clear understanding.
Due to a lack of awareness surrounding the issues of DEI (Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion) some educators have made challenges of disabled students more significant. For example, when teachers don’t know how to work with students who have special needs ignoring students, disregarding their inputs, or possibly complaining about extra work.
In the same way, leaders and employees require diversity training; it is imperative educators receive training, especially as they influence the behaviors and attitudes that students will also adopt.
Where Can We Start? Don’t Underestimate Abilities
Nelson reports the experience of a woman entrepreneur with cerebral palsy who excelled by tackling her challenges head-on. When no one in the school would engage with her, she enlisted a family friend in showing her how to manage a jump rope and secretly practiced behind the school buildings for months.
By the end of the school year, she had managed to achieve this one skill that would give her something she would have the ability to do with another child during recess.
While others, including her parents, were surprised at the risks she had taken—the principle was an important one.
In IEP programs, she notes, students are often held to minimal standards instead of being pushed to accomplish what they can achieve.
Additionally, the programs can inadvertently attempt to solve so many of a disabled student’s problems for them that the individuals are doubly disabled when they try to enter the workforce. Why? They were not taught to develop problem-solving skills to collaborate with others or to overcome the life challenges of time management, budgeting, logistics, and correlation that is universal to all.
Mainstream integration in schools to every degree is imperative.
What About The Workplace?
DEI training for companies is vital, Nelson says, together with training for the disabled that will allow them to fulfill mainstream jobs.
For example, Nelson points to the fact that even in a region of the U.S. as strong as Alaska, which ranks third in the nation for the strength of its disability programs, found it necessary to obtain a Master’s Degree before considering roles others could receive through a Bachelor’s program.
The female student he referenced above faced similar issues. While she now owns and operates a thriving business, when she first approached the Governor’s Committee on Employment for People with Disabilities for her state, she was advised to get on social security disability rather than attempt to find work.
Undeterred, she obtained a role in a large organization that recognized the potential ability of the disabled to master specific valuable skills.
Interestingly, five years later, due to her success in the business world, she was appointed by the Governor to the very committee and served a term as chair. She emphasized the committee would never again tell an individual with disabilities who wanted to work they should not. As far as she knows, they no longer discourage any willing individual from going to work or pursuing a career.
Organizations need the training to ensure what they do for the disabled is genuinely meaningful. For example, integrating disabled and mainstream workers into cohesive units instead of having disabled workers only with others who also face the same challenges.
Elevating The Narrative is Key To Success
Nelson also warns leaders and organizations against the propensity to exploit the disabled. Quite often, we can see the desire to include the disabled in photos and scenarios meant to imply inclusion.
However, we can communicate a message that condescends and minimizes a disabled person’s full role and skills.
Instead, the most robust organizations should recognize and integrate their disabled members in roles of full and mutually beneficial value add.
The accessibility features of the building, for example, allows a senior producer to meet a production schedule that produces the company’s revenue, as opposed to serving as a step that meets compliance by following minimum ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) rules.
The disabled support the narrative by fulfilling roles that propel the company’s business. Companies provide accommodations to allow their key employees to fulfill and maximize these critical roles. Now the integration and outcomes are a win—win that can continue and grow.
New Programs Such As The Peer Power Summit Can Help
Nelson is the board president of a program that is now approaching its fifth year, with the Fifth Annual Peer Power Summit in Anchorage slated for Sept 24-26 of 2021.
Through sponsors, the program brings disabled people (and their assistants) to learn and grow through resources and presentations from others who are also disabled. This program supports and gives them the encouragement and skills to create and propel positive growth for themselves and the organizations they launch or the companies where they work.
The program anticipates greater Inclusion from the lower 48 states in the 2021 offerings, along with the ability to broadcast proceedings for participants unable to attend in person. For more information about this program, readers can visit Peer Power or can contact Nelson directly at RicNelson.net.