2015 marks key year for workers accommodations

The year 2015 is a particularly important one for Americans with disabilities. It marks the 70th anniversary of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) as well as the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Teresa Goddard — a senior consultant at the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) — has a family history of disability dating back to when NDEAM began.

“My grandfather was wounded in World War II. But I never heard him speak of asking for something special in the workplace on account of it. He was never overt about it in the way people are able to be now because of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she said.

Introduced in 1990, this act “prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.”

“Employers often don’t realize how many people with disabilities they already have in their workforce,” Goddard said. “There are still some people who are hesitant to come forward. But I think there’s been a growth in openness among people with disabilities.”

Part of that openness stems from all of the new technology available now that is making workplaces universally accessible.

In light of NDEAM, Goddard said she would like to see “more awareness of the all the tools marketed toward the mainstream population that can be easily used as accommodations for people with disabilities.”

An example Goddard points to is the screen reading program, Narrator, which is built into the Windows operating system. A similar tool is the KNFB reader app, which uses optical character recognition to take in the text from any piece of paper you photograph and read that text aloud.

“The KNFB reader has been around for a long time. It used to be a piece of handheld technology that was extremely expensive,” Goddard said. “Now it’s an app, and it’s very affordable. It’s something people could easily get on their own even if they didn’t have support in terms of a physician’s prescription.”

Despite what its name suggests, “assistive technology” isn’t only found in cyberspace or in the form of some futuristic gadget. “Something as simple as a pencil grip could technically be an assistive technology. And that’s something that millions of children use across the country every day,” Goddard said.

Many people believe that assistive technology and other accommodations are more complex and therefore expensive, Goddard added. But JAN’s research shows that 58 percent of employers report no costs in terms of accommodations for employees with disabilities. And when accommodations do come with a cost, it is typically $500 or less.

The high expense involved in accommodating employees with disabilities is one of the many myths about the disabled community that NDEAM dispels. This year, the awareness month is clearing up another major misconception — the idea that employees define themselves by their disabilities.

The theme for NDEAM 2015 is “My Disability Is One Part of Who I Am.” This “encapsulates the important message that people with disabilities are just that — people,” said Jennifer Sheehy, acting assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy. “And like all people, we are the sum of many parts, including our work experiences. Disability is an important perspective we bring to the table, but, of course, it’s not the only one.”

The program director for the Bureau of Developmental Disabilities Services, Richard Propes strongly embodies this year’s theme. A paraplegic/double below knee amputee with spina bifida, Propes does not define himself by his disability. In addition to his work assisting others with disabilities, he’s an ordained minister, author, activist and film critic.

“I was raised with a work ethic, though I can also say that I’ve far outlived my life expectancy and nobody ever guessed that I would even live long enough to work,” Propes said. “I just turned 50. Wow.”

Propes realized his true level of ability in 1989, when he started the Tenderness Tour. Traveling across Indiana completely with his wheelchair, he launched this effort to raise awareness of child abuse and collect donations for children’s organizations around the world.

“I traveled the roads of Indiana alone for 41 days and over 1,000 miles. When I returned home from that first tour, I couldn’t deny that I had far more potential than I could have ever imagined. I mean, seriously, if I could travel alone around Indiana for 41 days and 1,000 miles, what couldn’t I do? I’ve been wheeling and working ever since,” Propes said.

When Propes began the project, he started with just $20 in his pocket and a letter to the Executive Director of Prevent Child Abuse, Indiana. When he was sitting in front of the organization’s office waiting to speak to her, he had no idea how much the Tenderness Tour would grow after that humble beginning. Thanks largely to social media, Propes gained several followers, volunteers and donations for the project over the years. Its evolution is similar to the growth of NDEAM and the community for which it raises awareness.

Much like Propes reflects on his tour’s progress, JAN’s co-director Lou Orslene looks with pride at the past and future of his field’s awareness efforts for the disabled community. He is excited about celebrating the history of these efforts amid the anniversaries of NDEAM and ADA.

“Many of us in the field are not only looking forward and seeing this enormous convergence of factors that are making workplaces more accommodating, but we’re also looking back at the people who started movements and how important they were,” Orslene said. “Whether making the community more accessible for people with disabilities or making workplaces more inclusive, we have really come a long way. I think we need to recognize and celebrate that in this big year.”

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