Perceptions of ability affect job searches
Discussions about diversity in the workplace are often limited to discrimination based on race and gender. But some local nonprofits are working to expand the discussion and provide opportunities for people with a range of abilities, including physical, developmental and learning disabilities.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the general unemployment rate is currently 6.5 percent, a decrease from last year’s statistics. Conversely, unemployment for persons with a disability has gone up since 2013, and now sits at 14.5 percent.
“Employment is a big issue with people with disabilities,” Larry Roberts, program director at the Finger Lakes Independence Center, said. FLIC is an agency that both connects people with disabilities to necessary resources, such as sign language interpreters, and advocates to promote civil rights and address disability on a broader scale. Most of the employees at FLIC, including Roberts, have disabilities themselves, which gives their organization an extra level of expertise in working toward solutions for disability-related issues. The issue of employment, Roberts said, is “much more complicated than we can imagine.”
He said, “it takes a lot of energy to both get people into jobs and get them exposed to skills that they would need to be successful.”
Another local nonprofit organization that has been working to expand public discourse and employment opportunities for people with disabilities is Challenge Workforce Solutions.
Pamela Nardi, whose daughter Cassie Taber is a Challenge employee, said, “In addition to providing jobs to special needs adults, [Challenge] also serves to promote self-pride, accomplishment, and build on new skills and opportunities for a more productive and fulfilling life.”
One of the program’s strengths is its emphasis on individualized support that concentrates on individual strengths rather than weaknesses. Emily Parker, director of marketing and development at Challenge, said, “Our staff has a sensitivity to and awareness of what it is to have a disability. We promote an environment of respect.”
Nardi also values the community aspect of Challenge. “The staff is focused on each individual’s needs, building on their skills and limitations to help them grow both in the workforce and also in their personal lives. Consumers build lifelong friendships with workers, becoming more of a family unit than a workplace,” she said.
Taber has held a few jobs, including working in dish rooms at Ithaca College. She now works two jobs through the program: contract work (like packaging and shredding) at Challenge’s campus on South Hill, and packaging and labeling produce at the Finger Lakes Fresh hydroponics facility. Through working, Nardi said, her daughter has developed the ability to “stay on task, take direction from supervisors, interact with co-workers in a socially appropriate manner and most importantly to learn from her mistakes on the job and improve her attitude and job performance.”
While meaningful employment offers people with disabilities opportunities to learn and develop their work skills, many employers are still hesitant to give jobs to people who face employment barriers.
Actual barriers have to do with a person’s range of abilities, while attitudinal barriers are preconceptions about an employee’s capabilities, he said.
“It’s not a problem that people with disabilities have disabilities, it’s the actual barriers and attitudinal barriers together that are really the problem,” Roberts said.
The actual barriers won’t ever go away, but long-held attitudes that prevent equal opportunity based on disability can be challenged.
“Most rational employers get the general concept that people with disabilities are capable of things, but a lot of times employers get caught up in what the employee can’t do,” Roberts said. “Our strategy [at FLIC] is convincing both people with disabilities and employers that they’re capable of working, especially for people with disabilities. We are not very well-trained in talking about what we’re good at.”
One way to do this is by uniting people with and without disabilities in workplace settings. This workplace integration is one of the main goals at Challenge.
“Sadly, disability scares a lot of people, but the more fully integrated people with disabilities are, the more comfortable and familiar others will be with the range of ability,” Parker said. “We want to set the standard of people working side by side with and without barriers.”
Better integration is the first step in disempowering deep-rooted biases in the workplace. This process may be difficult, as entrenched attitudes are hard to change, but it will likely get easier through programs like Challenge that aim to bridge the gap between people with and without disabilities.
Nardi is optimistic about the future, and hopes that the current expansion of societal awareness of civil rights will begin to include sensitivity to disability and the unique needs of people with varying capabilities.
“We need to look past individuals’ limitations and forward to what they can contribute to the job, the workplace, and most importantly the world,” she said.
Sabina Leybold is a freshman speech-language pathology major who supports equal employment opportunities. Email her at sleybol1[at]ithaca.edu.