During National Disability Employment Awareness Month, GettingHired had a chance to interview Kathy Martinez, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy, for the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Kathy advises the U.S. Secretary of Labor and internal other agencies on how regulations and policies impact people with disabilities.
We invited Kathy to discuss her thoughts on the new Section 503 requirements, disclosure of a disability, the labor force, barriers to employment and how companies should prepare to hire more people with disabilities.
- How do you feel the workforce is changing and will the new requirements to section 503 help?
That’s a really interesting two-part question. The workforces as we know it is certainly undergoing rapid changes, and many of them— especially those precipitated by demographic shifts — are having a dramatic effect on the topic of disability and employment. Every day, roughly 10,000 people in the U.S. turn 65. And the number of people in the labor force past age 65 is expected to increase more than three times as fast as the total labor force — mainly due to workers postponing retirement and that infamous “baby boom bubble.” This so called “graying” of the workforce is helping redefine what we include in a disability context and how we think about disability issues. The conversation is expanding, because many of these older workers will develop disabilities as they age, or their existing disabilities may become more significant.
And, yes, I do believe the new Section 503 regulations, which went into effect in March of this year, will have a positive impact by helping further understanding that disability isn’t a “special” issue, but rather one that affects all of us. They’ll do this by not only bringing more people with disabilities into the federal contractor workforce, but also by highlighting the fact that many already are an important part of this workforce. The requirement that employers invite applicants and employees to self-identify will be particularly important in this respect. And it is my hope and belief that this shift in thinking will eventually trickle down from federal contractors to all businesses, including small businesses.
- Disclosure is a personal subject for most people with a disability, do you feel the 503 requirements will provide better understanding and conversation on the topic?
Yes. I am very hopeful that it will, and in many ways it already has. As I said, we’re undergoing a real paradigm shift in the way we think and talk about disability and employment, and Section 503 presents an opportunity to solidify this. Clearly, to meet their goals under the new rules, employers must foster an inclusive work environment, one where employees feel comfortable disclosing, without fear or worry of discrimination. That way those employees can be counted, and progress towards a company’s goals can be measured. As this is done, I think that the problem I talked about earlier —disability as “special” — will start to naturally erode. And ultimately, that will benefit everyone, employees and employers alike.
- With the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities being just under 20%, what needs to be done to encourage these individuals to come back into the workforce?
Well, first it’s important to note that not all people with disabilities who are out of the labor force were ever in it to begin with. And that’s a problem we have to address by raising expectations. There are some people with disabilities, likely people born with disabilities, who simply did not grow up expecting to work. And this is unfortunate, because expectation really is the first critical step in closing the employment gap between people with and without disabilities. I know this firsthand. I was born blind, and in my house, my parents made clear from day one that I was expected to do my part, contribute to the household and, one-day, work. But, as I said, not everyone was as fortunate to receive such messages.
So, we need to look at changes we can make in our educational and social service systems to ensure that those of us with disabilities understand that we have the skills to pursue meaningful careers and play an important role in America’s educational and economic success. Of course, parents of children with disabilities also have a critical role to play here. But whether we are born with a disability or acquire one later in life due to illness or injury, another key factor is ensuring we have the supports necessary to succeed in the workforce. In the workplace, these supports might be accommodations or flexible work arrangements or accessible technology. Outside of the workplace, they might be affordable and accessible transportation. They’re basically the same things all people need to do their jobs. And when it comes to people with acquired disabilities, especially older workers, we need to ensure employers understand that providing workplace supports is a highly effective corporate continuity strategy.
- What do you believe is the biggest barrier for people with a disability to find and secure a job?
That’s another great question. I often say the biggest barriers are not architectural, but attitudinal. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and this really feeds back into what I said earlier about expectations. There are people who don’t think those of us with disabilities can work. And sometimes those of us with disabilities get trapped in this mindset ourselves. Some are ashamed of our disability and don’t think we have the skills or ability to get a job. Others may be told by their family members that they will never work. Sometimes cultural factors come into play here. People, parents in particular, may want to shelter their family members with disabilities, to keep them safe. This may stem from best intentions, of course, but in the end it doesn’t always serve them well. Of course, we also need to ensure that employers understand the value and talent people with disabilities have to offer. Again, the key is attitude change. And I feel that we’ve made a lot of progress on this in recent years. But, we still have a long way to go. And that is where efforts like the new Section 503 rules have the power to make a big difference. They will help highlight that those of us with disabilities can and do contribute to the workforce every day.
- What would you recommend to a business, interested in hiring more people with disabilities on how to prepare?
I’d say that while it’s a good idea to prepare, you’re likely going to find that recruiting and hiring those of us with disabilities isn’t all that different than recruiting and hiring any employees. But, there are some things you can do to be proactive, such as publishing a company-wide policy regarding disability inclusion and clearly communicating your commitment to providing reasonable accommodations to applicants and employees with disabilities, and how to go about requesting them. These are just a few things, of course.
A few years ago, we published an employer policy framework, a document we call “Business Strategies that Work.” This framework outlines promising practices for recruiting, hiring, retaining and advancing qualified individuals with disabilities. It’s basically a how-to guide for employers who want to ensure that their workplaces are truly inclusive. So, I’d say that is a great resource for businesses looking to ramp up their efforts.
- Finally, what advice would you give to an individual that’s feeling discouraged with their job search?
First, I would say I understand. I went through times in my life when I faced multiple challenges becoming successfully employed. But, I’d also say don’t give up, and be sure to access all the supports and resources available to assist you. GettingHired is one great example, of course! Another is the nationwide network of American Job Centers, or AJCs, which offer a broad range of employment services, free of charge. If you haven’t connected with your closest AJC, definitely check it out. When you do, be sure to ask if they have a Disability Resource Coordinator. This is a person specifically focused on improving education, training and employment (including self-employment) opportunities for youth and adults who are unemployed, underemployed and/or receiving Social Security disability benefits. But, even if an AJC doesn’t have a Disability Resource Coordinator, it can still help you in your job search. You can locate your nearest AJC by going to servicelocator.org