On November 2nd and 3rd, hundreds of people from around the world gathered at the Second Harkin Summit on Global Disability Employment to listen, network, and discuss the continuing employment challenges faced by people with disabilities, as well as to share the many inclusionary promising policies and practices initiated by policy makers, employers, and organizations supporting the aspirations of people with disabilities. We should all be very grateful to retired Senator Tom Harkin for continuing his passion to ensure the independence of people with disabilities through employment. This event enabled various constituencies who are passionate about this topic to convene and set a goal of substantially increasing the labor force participation rate of people with disabilities worldwide over the next ten years. While the challenges and models being developed internationally are important to us all, I have chosen to speak primarily to our domestic issues.
On the demand side, many private and public sector employers (EY, Merck, MicroSoft, J.P Morgan Chase, Scotiabank, Comcast, Walmart, New York City’s Office of the Mayor) known for their inclusive workplaces and for hiring, retaining, and advancing people with disabilities discussed their internal and external challenges. Examples of some of the challenges faced by these employers included: educating risk aversive lawyers about inclusion; understanding the value of various service providers for people with disabilities; circumventing the limitations of a placement-focused employment model; creating a process and culture where applicants and candidates with disabilities are comfortable disclosing; and the perennial question of where to source highly qualified candidates for specialized jobs. One thing I heard clearly is that employer needs are quite varied. The company’s size, culture, leadership, and hiring needs are determinates in moving the enterprise forward along the inclusion continuum. This also has implications for replicating successful practices – what may work for one employer may not easily be adapted for another employer.
On the supply side, an increased number of young people with disabilities are earning advanced degrees and graduating with the skills and knowledge needed for employment. However, transitioning from school to work is particularly challenging for many young people with disabilities who may not have the soft skills expected by employers. Others may have such low expectations of themselves that work seems unachievable. While these barriers are significant for young people transitioning to work from college or university, transitioning young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities also face difficulties. The transition from sheltered workshops to competitive employment has been and continues to be a challenge. More choices need to be available for people with intellectual disabilities. New models need to be developed and programs known for their promising results need to be expanded.
Demand side solutions proposed at the Summit included educating and partnering with company lawyers thereby creating greater confidence in the disclosure and self-identification process. Across departments and sectors, ensuring everyone in the company understands the value proposition of hiring and retaining people with disabilities should be prioritized. There was much talk too about how technology will continue to level the playing field. Accessibility builds inclusion was the mantra. One consistent message permeated the Summit – government is important for creating solutions. Strengthening of the ADA and requiring Federal contractors to hire and retain people with disabilities have been and are expected to continue to be important to increasing the employment of people with disabilities. We also heard from state and local public sector employers exploring special hiring authorities such as the Federal government’s Schedule A program. This as well as other Federal initiatives are resulting in increasing the number of people in Federal service. And, from the conversations at the Summit, it may be time for expansion of successful existing employer-driven models such as Project Search and the Going for the Gold Program or even the creation of a new disability employment model evolving out of the talent needs of employers. Finally, there were conversations about developing a workgroup to analyze incentives for employing people – while these have had limited success in the past, it seemed important for participants to continue exploring the relevance of specific incentives.
On the supply side, I was heartened to hear of the World Institute on Disability’s (WID) Employment and Economic Empowerment E3 online resource, which addresses “often overlooked roadblocks to full inclusion and equity,” including the low expectations young people have of themselves. Empowerment was a central theme of the discussions about preparing young people for the workplace. This came through loudly during a panel featuring stories by a number of young people. The approach they suggested was to empower youth to ensure they know they fit in. These young leaders shared with other young people that they will face challenges, but it is essential to be resilient, creative, and innovative. Important to this approach also is educating those in the rehabilitation system, as well as employers, about the value young people with disabilities bring to the workplace. These presenters suggested that employers should be guided by respect for diversity and strive to create a sense of belonging for employees. In addition to WID E3, leaders from Specialisterne discussed their knowledge of matching individuals with autism spectrum disorders with employment opportunities.
The Summit also included a number of foundations committed to moving the field of disability and employment forward. The Kessler Foundation’s 2017 National Employment & Disability Survey: Supervisor Perspectives; the Poses Family Foundation’s The Workforce Initiative, and the Ruderman Family Foundation’s Inclusion Summit participated in the Summit. The Ford Foundation, pushing fast and furious into this area with the help of Senior Fellow Judy Heumann, was represented by the Foundation’s President, Darren Walker.
The Summit ended with Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President, World Bank Group. One thing came through loud and clear during Dr. Kim’s discussion with Senator Harkin – while we need to overcome the historic challenges we all have recognized for decades, we also need to be cognizant of the future threat of automation and the impact this will have on employment. It is expected as rate of automation increases low skill and entry level positions will disappear. Dr. Kim suggested that we stay tuned to the World Bank’s soon to be released environmental and social framework strongly correlating government spending on health and education with economic growth. World Bank research suggests that improving health is now known to be the biggest determinant of economic growth. Preliminary data on this is overwhelming. The message is invest in people first, make sure it is an inclusive process, and then this will create growth.
A big thanks goes out to Joseph Jones, Executive Director, The Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement; Andy Imparato, Executive Director, Association of University Centers on Disabilities; and their teams for organizing this event. A special thanks also to all of the other leaders who moderated sessions.
We look forward to supporting and playing a part in the Harkin Summit goal of doubling the labor force participation rate of people with disabilities in the United States in the next 10 years through our work at JAN.