Equal Opportunity Employment: Common Practice or A Mere Concept?

By: Tina L. Hawley

             For the majority of us, employment is our livelihood. However, securing employment can be especially challenging for people with disabilities. Society is led to believe that there are equal employment opportunities for the disabled, but is that reality?  

In 1990, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, individuals with disabilities became a protected class under EOEC.  There are certain preclusions to the law, which afford employers the right to deny a person with a disability employment if it would cause the company or organization hardship.  For example, a limousine company can deny employment to a blind applicant. However, the reason to deny employment to a person with a disability must be grounded in logic. 

As a person with a disability, I have encountered countless obstacles to achieving employment beyond an entry level position.  I hold both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from noteworthy public Virginia Universities and I have had the privilege of obtaining several prominent internships, including The United States Senate and the International United Steel Workers local #8888.  I also have over eight years of fulltime employment with two separate organizations.   

To be frank, I do not disclose my disability on the majority of my applications. I am not legally obligated to do so; similar to one’s right to abstain disclosing their gender, race, age and so forth.  I have had countless interviews with a number of local organizations who articulate how impressed they are by my credentials and references. Yet, when it is time to fill out generic pre-employment documents, I am forced to disclose the fact that I am legally blind, and  suddenly I am not the right fit for the position, or I’m under qualified, or even over qualified.  I have even been accused of being a liar due to my choice not to disclose.  

I am not alone in this struggle to succeed.  According to the U.S Department of Labor’s 2010 Economic Picture of the Disability Community Project: “Employment levels of people with disabilities are low, and those who are employed tend to be in low-paying occupations… People with disabilities are somewhat overrepresented in slower-growing occupations, which lowers their projected employment growth rate through 2022 assuming disability prevalence by occupation stays constant.” The report goes on to state, “Whether the potential for increased employment of people with disabilities will be realized depends in part on public and corporate policies…”

This report mirrors the current employment challenges experienced by individuals with disabilities, and it gives little hope for future change. The fate of the perspective employee lay in the hands of legislatures and those responsible for hiring.

Now, in 2017, individuals with disabilities are being put at further risk of being marginalized in the workforce. Regulations issued by the Department of Education (DOE) for the purpose of implementing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), as well as the guidance provided by Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), may directly breach the intentions of Congress by limiting, rather than increasing, access to employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Specifically, RSA is limiting employment opportunities based on the type of employer, rather than on the specifics of the job position. RSA does not recognize employment through community rehabilitation programs (CRPs) nor through AbilityOne contracts as not only valuable options, but, in many cases, among the best competitive integrated employment options for people with disabilities in their communities.

These realities, combined with my own experiences have motivated me to write this piece. I refuse to sit silently on the sidelines of such a critical issue.  I firmly believe that the obstacle to people with disabilities succeeding in the workforce is a lack of education about the disabled community and lack of imagination about how the disabled population can be equal participants in our communities.  

If you happen to have influence over hiring decisions, I challenge you to take a chance on an applicant with a disability. If the applicant meets or exceeds the educational requirements of the position, if they have a work history which is demonstrative of their abilities, and if their references can attest to their performance and capabilities; I encourage you to step outside the box. You might just be surprised by the professionalism and quality of the product that that disabled employee is able to produce. Often, the disabled are more professional then the average applicant because we have to work hard to prove ourselves and overcome the prejudices we face.  

In addition, if you are a lawmaker reading this piece, I urge you to please take the opportunity and the time to learn more about individuals with disabilities, to learn and go see for yourself people with disabilities working in supportive employment environments and/or in AbilityOne jobs.  Please do not allow some of our most vulnerable citizens be cast aside as if they have nothing to contribute to society. 

Last but certainly not least, if you are an individual with a disability reading (or hearing) this article, I want to say this to you: Do not give up: Giving up on self-betterment, on professional success, on a dream yet realized means giving up on yourself.  That hiring manager may not be able to see your potential, but trust me, eventually, someone will. Keep going and know your own worth.