In 1945, the U.S. Congress designated the first week in October as “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” Later, the word “physically” was removed in recognition of the employment needs of all Americans with disabilities, and in 1988, Congress expanded the week to a month, calling it “National Disability Employment Awareness Month.” Although this is an action of the U.S. Congress, the issues raised are universal.
This year’s presidential proclamation says, “More than 20 years after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, individuals with disabilities, including injured veterans, are making immeasurable contributions to workplaces across our country. Unfortunately, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities remains too high -- nearly double the rate of people without disabilities -- and reversing this trend is crucial.”
The “unemployment rate” measures the number of people who are actively seeking jobs but are not employed. Therefore, the percentage of people with disabilities who are actively seeking employment, but not finding it, is twice the percentage of the general population who are out of work and seeking employment.
Why is their rate of unemployment higher? In some cases, potential employers refuse to consider accommodations that would allow the person with a disability to serve well on the job. Sometimes accommodations made are later taken away.
An employee of 7-Eleven with 95 percent hearing loss, James Soliday, supervised multiple stores in Ohio and later in Florida from 1983 until his termination in 2008. He read lips, used a pager, and had fax machines in each store he managed. When a new supervisor, Terry Hutchinson, refused to replace aging equipment and began conducting conference call meetings without giving Soliday requisite notice so that he could participate using a relay service. In 2008 Soliday was discharged from his employment, allegedly due to a failure to perform his job duties. Soliday filed an action against 7-Eleven for unlawful employment practices. A jury found in favor of Soliday and ordered an award of at least $1-million; the company plans to appeal.
The retail business is cutthroat; profit margins razor thin. Employees and supervisors need to be agile. Still, Soliday was able to do his job effectively for many years, and it looks as if he was terminated because a new supervisor was not willing to replace aging equipment nor plan conference call meetings in advance.
This is not a matter of charity; it’s a matter of justice. A number of companies such as IBM and Procter & Gamble have made significant efforts to employ people with disabilities. Some companies are finding that people with certain kinds of disabilities are especially well suited for the work they do. When companies refuse to consider hiring people with disabilities, they unnecessarily limit their potential talent pool and hurt themselves as well as broader society.
If you who are in a position to hire employees, please consider the applicants who have disabilities as well as those who don’t. It’s a matter of justice, and you may just find the prize employee that you have been looking for among the people with disabilities.
For more information, see the Statement of Solidarity by the Religious Community Around Employment of People with Disabilities which Disability Concerns signed on behalf of the CRC.