History of National Disability Employment Awareness Month
National Disability Employment Awareness Month traces back to 1945, when Congress enacted a law declaring the first week in October each year National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. In 1962, the word “physically” was removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities—not just physical. In 1988, Congress expanded the week to a month and changed the name to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
This was woven into existing advocacy that led to the creation and passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was passed by President Bush and Congress in 1990 and signed into law in 1992. Access, anti-discrimination and employment were equal pillars under the ADA.
In His Own Words: Activist Alex Montoya Speaks Up
Even for those who can find a job, the workplace for some workers with disabilities is not always a comforting environment. For Alex Montoya, San Diego writer, speaker and activist, his first job experience was a shocking entry into the workforce. Below he shares some of his story and ideas for action.
I was the only person in our office with a visible disability—underneath my clothes, I wore two prosthetic arms and a prosthetic leg. My job was to sell memberships for our organization. Each member received benefits including access to networking events and discounts. I visited clients in person and one of them gave me an experience I would never forget. As soon as I walked in the room, he locked eyes with me and as soon as I introduced myself he asked, “Are those things sharp?” while laughing. “Don’t scratch me!” he added. My face felt hot, and my heart rate surged. I didn’t know how to respond.
I knew his jokes about my prosthetics were a display of what he regarded as humorous behavior. And I knew what behavior was and was not acceptable. So I exited the lobby and building. That potential sale was important, but so was my dignity.
I knew I was fortunate to have that first job. As with anybody else, a first job brings invaluable experiences, lessons and contacts that lead to future jobs.
I had often heard there is less employee turnover of people with disabilities than those without. This is usually thanks to workplace allies—individuals who support workers with disabilities whenever and however possible by providing assistance, flexible practices and resistance to less empathetic and enlightened individuals… like the man that joked about my prosthetics. These allies play a key factor in someone’s decision to remain with an organization.
Later on in my career I was fortunate to have workplace allies—teammates who were not disabled but looked out for my access needs. Sometimes it was as simple as assisting me in heating up lunch. Other times it was ensuring that a meeting location was accessible, and if it wasn’t, determining how we could switch sites. Sometimes my allies have looked out for me against people making insensitive comments as well.
To achieve equality for those with disabilities, it will take both public and private systems to work simultaneously to address workplace issues. Here are some ways your workplace can become more inclusive to disabled individuals:
- Actively recruit employees who are disabled. Seek out disability service centers in schools or recruit through the Department of Rehabilitation. Make these candidates feel wanted.
- Ensure that your workplace is fully accessible for interviews and employees. For example, can people access your workplace regardless of their disability? Are there disabled parking spots? If there are stairs, are there also ramps and an elevator? Are you prepared to provide a sign language interpreter?
- Ensure that products and messaging from your workplace are inclusive. From your website, to your products’ packaging, ask yourself: are these accessible to everyone? Consider all disabilities, from hearing to visual and beyond.
Train your staff about ableism and how to utilize non-ableist language and practices. Ableism is everywhere. People with disabilities are often discriminated against overtly and openly, but often also passively. Teach your employees the correct language and the importance of accessibility and inclusion.
Building a More Equitable San Diego
While there have been many advancements in workplace equity since the passage of the ADA, people with disabilities still face many barriers. Prior to the pandemic, only 19% of people with disabilities held a job.
Over the years, the federal government has addressed this growing issue by passing new policy measures. One example was the expansion of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which helps job seekers succeed in the labor market by accessing employment, education, training and support services, and matches employers with the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy. WIOA also includes measures to increase access to education and training programs for people with disabilities.
The Workforce Partnership administers two adult WIOA programs that serve individuals with disabilities, Ticket to Work and Project Inspire. Ticket to Work provides job seekers with career counseling, job search support, Social Security work incentive advisement, financial services and resources, and more. Project Inspire supports organizations that provide case management and employment for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, providing them with subsidized wages and covering the costs for training and case management services.