October is National Disability Employment Awareness month, so all month I will try to bring some special postings about what is going on in the world of disability employment. I’m excited to kick off the month with a Q and A post with my good friend, J.R. Harding. My boss, Jim introduced me to J.R. a few years ago and we hit it off and have looked for ways to collaborate ever since. J.R.’s story is one of strength, determination and perseverance.
You see, J.R. was a star scholar and football player in high school. He had aspirations of playing football at an NCAA power house school. That is, until one altercation with a fellow team mate left him a quadriplegic. Despite the injuries he managed to graduate high school with his class. He has since gone on to complete his Educational Doctorate. He has served on state and national advisory committees pertaining to disabilities, mostly focused on employment and transportation. He can also now add published author to his long list of accomplishments as he wrote an autobiographical book which was released last year, called “Now What?”
Q: Have you noticed any change in the receptivity of potential employers from when you initially graduated college to now?
A: Absolutely. When I first graduated from college in 1991, persons with disabilities could not get into buildings, could not ride public transportation and the world honestly did not know what to do with us. Today, I know thousands of individuals with disabilities working and volunteering in the community. Progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go because most persons with disabilities are still unemployed.
Q: In your advocacy and policy work, have you noticed any particular industries more receptive to including disability in the workforce than others?
A: I have witnessed a “true sea change” with regards to the receptiveness of policy makers, employers and community leaders with regards to the abilities of persons with disabilities. They, the establishment, have come to realize that we, persons with disabilities, must be a part of any sustainability plans. Personally, I have found that the hospitality industry and related service industries appear to get it better than others.
Q: Do you feel like your co-workers attitudes change toward you over time, as they get to know you? Do you find people hesitant to work with you at first?
A: Although we, society, have had 22 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I still encounter hesitancy and the lack of comfort around persons with disabilities and especially those with significant disabilities. Like all things, over time, co-workers and the general public become more inclusive and more comfortable. In short, we all need help, with or without disabilities.
Q: What feedback have you heard from employers who have hired people with disabilities?
A: I have heard first hand, and witnessed that most employers, once they try it, including persons with disabilities on their team, they become new advocates for the cause. Companies have begun to learn that there is a return on investment from this type of diversity. At the same time however, the system that supplies qualified persons with disabilities, is not able to produce qualified applicants in a competitive marketplace. For example, if company A wants to hire 50 people with X type of skills in 90 days, the system is not likely to produce 50 qualified applicants with disabilities for the company’s needs. Rather, we must hope/find individuals with disabilities who are exploring skills and education within that field.
There are a number of companies at the state and national level which have embraced “this emerging market”, and in turn have benefitted from a dependable workforce, and increase bottom lines. In fact, an article in the September 6, 2012 edition of The Economist, identifies this action as the “new green”.
Q: What motivates companies to include disability in their workforces?
A: Unfortunately, I cannot make a blanket statement with regards to this inclusive behavior. What I can state with confidence, is that leadership and diversity begins at the top of the food chain (CEO, owner, and HR directors). I have found that it is simply a culture that permeates throughout the company or business owner with regards to persons with disabilities. They don’t have to be persuaded, they know it is the right thing to do and that everyone has skills and abilities that should be harnessed