Disability Awareness Month: Everyone Has a Place in This World

October 6, 2020

By Ty Harrell, Accessibility Resources Counselor

"... When you grow up disabled, it's the fact that you're not considered either a man or a woman, all because you're just thought of as a disabled person." - Judith Heumann

October is a season of change. Even though our world has been turned upside down due to a pandemic that has ravaged our country, the seasons continue to change and time marches forward. As we bid farewell to summer, we enjoy the splendor of the close of another season with beautiful scenery, crisp air and the promise of a new beginning and hope for a return to some semblance of normalcy in our daily lives.

October is also Disability Awareness Month, a time to reflect and celebrate the contributions that diversity brings to the workplace. Every day, we see the contributions made by those who experience life differently and face challenges that, to some, might seem insurmountable. It is their successes and contributions that make the workforce stronger, more tolerant and, simply, smarter.

The discussion of disability in the workplace has managed to become a topic of conversation with the success of The Good Doctor. In the show which has just been renewed for its fourth season on ABC, you follow the life of a young surgical resident Dr. Shaun Murphy. The show offers a very candid look as the viewers follow him and the staff of San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital as Murphy, who is Autistic, attempts to find his way in the structured hospital environment. Murphy, who is extremely intelligent and talented, struggles with social cues and personal interactions, which causes concerns for the management team of the hospital, leaving many of them asking if Murphy belongs at the hospital at all.

Not only do you get to see him at work, but you get to witness him as he struggles through daily life, dealing with a landlord, managing public transportation and personal relationship issues.

It is a brilliantly written by David Shore, who has the widely acclaimed Fox network show House to his credit (which also featured a disabled doctor). Shore has been able to eloquently portray the day-to-day struggle in a subtle yet powerful “in your face” presentation. The show does not attempt to paint autism with a broad stroke, but rather personalize the struggle that Murphy faces while bringing to light the value and contributions that the character has to offer.

All too often persons with disabilities are easily dismissed or simply overlooked due to preconceived notions regarding their abilities and true value. It is vital employers recognize the contributions these individuals can bring to a workplace. Often, they provide a unique perspective that may not have been considered before. The key to success is understanding, flexibility, and a willingness to learn.

The unemployment rate for workers with disabilities is twice that of workers without disabilities. It is still common practice for workers with a disability to be paid well below the minimum wage based on laws that date back to 1936 when the talents and potential of workers with disabilities were even more horribly misunderstood. These laws are still in effect, and employers can, legally, pay disabled workers below minimum wage, called the subminimum wage, based on projected productivity compared to a non-disabled employer.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act provides vital protections to the disabled workforce, it can’t solve every issue, such as fewer opportunities for advancement for workers with disabilities in the workforce.

Fortunately, for everyone, we are seeing a shift in thinking with corporate America. Many companies are coming to realize diversity in the workforce is vital for corporate success and offers many dividends, both to the employee and the organization for which they work.

Starbucks is a leader in the forward thinking when it comes to hiring workers with disabilities. The actively recruit and hire persons with disabilities and promote their diversity.

“Our Mission and Values at Starbucks reflect the fundamental principle that everyone is welcome. We aspire to be a place of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility," says Starbucks President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Johnson. “Diversity makes us stronger, and the creation of a deeply inclusive culture allows us to succeed and grow together.”

It is refreshing to see companies embrace the diversity of the workforce and welcome individuals who may have been overlooked before simply because of a lack of understanding. Hopefully, successful television shows like The Good Doctor, NCIS New Orleans, Stranger Things, and Glee, all who feature characters with disabilities, will help increase understanding and awareness regarding these issues as well.

Everyone has something to offer. All that is required is someone to recognize the potential, and work to nurture that potential to see real success. Increased public awareness is a key step to that success.