This year marks the 77th anniversary of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. And it’s fair to say the last nearly-eight decades have seen significant improvements in the amount and type of job opportunities available to those living with disabilities. Doors that were once firmly shut have begun to open and the level of understanding among employers when it comes to supporting the disability community in the workplace has increased. Yet there is, of course, much more work to do. As well as being a moment to reflect on progress, milestones like this can be a harsh reminder of the challenges still faced by many people in the disability community who feel the world simply wasn’t designed for them.
As the mother of a child with Down syndrome, I see those challenges first-hand. Every day, my daughter, Katelynn, figures out her way around a world that’s not straight forward for her. The persistence and determination she shows in doing so is a huge accomplishment – and one that’s replicated by millions of other people living with physical and mental disabilities all over the world. However, it’s also an achievement that goes unnoticed and unappreciated by many in the fully abled community.
There are lots of charities and non-profit organizations doing fantastic work to address this. Speaking personally, my family and I have found tremendous support through GiGi’s Playhouse, a wonderful Down syndrome achievement center with a mission to change the way the world views Down syndrome and send a global message of acceptance for all.
As well as its wider advocacy work, GiGi’s has provided Katelynn with valuable services like speech therapy and math tutoring while offering a range of social programs and events for us all to get involved in. Katelynn took her first unsupported steps at 2 ½ years old and, today, she is an active participant in local dance troupes, cheerleading, swim teams, and musicals. This year, I’m thrilled to say she took part in her 11th GiGi's Playhouse Dash for Down Syndrome.
These experiences are, of course, personal to Katelynn, me and the rest of our family. Just as they are for every person and every family living with mental or physical differences. But as a society, we have to do more to collectively acknowledge and understand them. We must shift the narrative from seeing people as having a difference to seeing people as living with a difference – and then help drive the changes required to make their lived experiences as easy, enjoyable and inclusive as possible.
Doing so requires an open mind and an open heart. It asks us to observe, act with patience and compassion, and to really take the time to recognize and empathize with disabled people’s challenges, concerns and opportunities. And it needs us to think beyond just those living with differences themselves and consider how we can support the people close to them too.
I’m proud to say that my own employer, CDW, is already well along that journey. Yes, we invest heavily in the success of our customers – that’s how we stay in business – but we also invest equally heavily in the success of our people and communities.
Looking specifically at the area of disability, we have a long-standing relationship with the Center for Enriched Living whose mission involves helping people in the disabled community acquire new skills for social inclusion and independent living. In June, we also expanded our partnership with Disability: IN to include Inclusion Works, a program that offers organizations consulting resources from a team of disability inclusion experts. The aim is to educate them on how to create an inclusive culture while simultaneously developing a sustainable recruitment strategy.
Within our own four walls, we operate a strong and successful disability inclusion program. First and foremost, the program is about ensuring we foster a culture in which everyone feels welcome, supported, and able to thrive. But I must be honest in saying it’s good for business too. Given the war on talent that all industries face right now, being clear about our values and beliefs helps us develop and retain our people while opening up the extraordinary talent pool within the disabled community too.
None of these initiatives stop at the end of this month. Because, yes, it’s important to use moments like National Disability Employment Awareness Month to raise awareness, educate, and re-engage people around how we help the disabled community feel included and enabled in both their personal and professional lives.
But even more important is that these efforts continue to accelerate. As employers, we must keep doing more to understand and, crucially, adapt our workplaces (both physically and culturally) to meet the needs of people living with differences and empower them to achieve their potential. I have no idea yet what career path Katelynn will choose to follow when the time comes. But I’m determined and excited to be part of creating a world of work that gives her and the rest of the disability community every chance to succeed.