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What Is Possible for People With Disabilities?

I broke my neck body surfing on New Year’s Eve while vacationing in Puerto Rico. The year was 1980, nearly 30 years ago. After a nine-month recovery at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation in New York, I began my life anew as a C5-C6 quadriplegic using a powered wheelchair.

In 1983, the company I was working for at the time of my accident, IBM, asked me to come back to work in a wheelchair. I was relocated to White Plains, N.Y., from 205 East 42nd Street in Manhattan, which was down the street from the United Nations building and across the street from the “Daily News.” (IBM is No. 8 in The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.)

I married the love of my life, Maggie, in 1988. Since then, we have raised two children, both now living in Boston: our daughter, who is now an attorney, and our son, who is finishing up college at Northeastern University.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. During the 20 years since the ADA was enacted, I have seen positive steps taken on many levels when it comes to changing attitudes regarding people with disabilities.

The ADA put the spotlight on a severely underrepresented group in our nation. Because of the ADA, people with disabilities are a group with a voice; we are now a legitimate constituency that has come of age. The disability community is a constituency that votes, that works, and that pays taxes. Human beings, who were once invisible, are now visible and can no longer be ignored.

The second prominent change I’ve seen in the last 20 years centers around the attitude of the American people and how our nation now perceives leaders. For example, the glass ceiling was symbolically and continually broken when women began to take on numerous leadership roles previously held by men.

You know these women as well as I do. In politics, regardless of political orientation, they include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, holding powerful jobs previously held by men.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another change in attitude we were all witness to: the historic election of our first Black president, Barack Obama. This attitude change in America bodes well for people with disabilities as we, as a community, aspire to similar leadership positions.

A New World

The third change I’d like to mention has to do with technology. For the first time in history, everything is connected—businesses, workflows and transactions.

There are 1.2 billion people, millions of businesses and perhaps a trillion devices connected to the World Wide Web today. In 2011, the Internet reached two billion people—nearly one-third of the world’s population.

Given the proliferation of technology, it shouldn’t be surprising that 70 percent of the computer chips produced today do not go into “computers.” They go into cars and planes, appliances, roadways, shipping containers, pacemakers, emergency rooms and every product with a radio-frequency identification tag … all “intelligent” and all connected.

With this technology revolution emerges a key point: Technology is the great equalizer for people with disabilities and will continue to play a major role in enabling people with disabilities to reach their full potential.

Between now and 2015, as the baby boomers retire, America will need between 10 and 15 million new workers. Add to that the demand for skills we see around the world and it becomes clear that businesses cannot afford to exclude any one constituency group from the talent pool.

This is especially true when it comes to people with disabilities, a large and under-utilized workforce that is employed at dramatically lower rates than the population of people with no disabilities, both in the United States and around the world. In August 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate of people with disabilities was 14.5 percent, higher than the rate for those with no disability, which was 9 percent.

Looked at another way, the employment-population ratio—the proportion of the population that is employed—was 19 percent for people with disabilities. Among those with no disability, the ratio was much higher: 64 percent.

The U.S. Census Bureau has previously reported that 51 million people, or 18 percent of the population, have some form of disability. Globally, the World Health Organization reports that between 750 million and 1 billion people have a disability. In addition, this constituency group controls $1 trillion in aggregate income and more than $220 billion in disposable income annually.

This data suggests that we should be able to leverage more of this under-utilized talent than we do today, if for no other reason than because it is good business—and people with disabilities are both customers and part of our talent base.

Global Challenges for People With Disabilities

The global environment argues against the exclusion of talent of any kind. Globalization, in my view, actually favors people with disabilities in the workforce, more than at any other time in history.

This is the new world of work, a world I believe is extending a hand to people with disabilities to not only participate but to lead. This is a time of great opportunity for people with disabilities to be a leader in business, government or other areas of employment. But more must be done to close critical gaps that will allow people with disabilities to become more fully integrated in society and the workplace.

To achieve this, we must strengthen partnerships with government and non-governmental organizations to help people with disabilities get to work as well as earn enough to wean themselves off our well-intentioned social programs. To accomplish this, three areas require attention: transportation, technology and inclusion.

First, transportation: According to a National Organization on Disability/Harris survey, people with disabilities are twice as likely to have inadequate transportation when compared with the mainstream population (31 percent versus 13 percent).

Lack of mobility is a major inhibitor if one aspires to a leadership role. The inability to travel, or the perception that one cannot travel easily, may even remove people with disabilities from consideration for a variety of jobs, making career advancement more difficult. Is this perception right? The answer is no. Does it exist? The answer is yes.

Government and business must continue to partner and look at transportation from the perspective of people with disabilities. A holistic approach must be taken, beginning with a person with a disability at home and mapping a route from home to work and back. The basic elements include: education and training, healthcare needs to get up and leave the house, appropriate transportation (public or private), and a workplace that is accessible, flexible and inclusive.

Second, technology: The Harris survey also reported that Americans with disabilities not only rely on assistive technology but a third reported they would lose their independence without technology.

Many assistive-technology accommodations cost as little as $500.00. The investment in technology to employ a professional with a disability may be less than the price a business pays for repeated costs of attrition, recruiting and hiring. Investments in technology can help make all employees more productive.

Finally, we can all do more when it comes to inclusion—that is, being comfortable with people who are different than we are.

Integral, Not Isolated

For some employers today, the inclination is to think that if an employee has a disability, the employment issue can be handled by just providing technology that enables an employee to work from home. In some cases that may be true or even necessary. But I think it’s critical for people with disabilities to be visible and in the workplace. To overcome basic misconceptions, a professional with a disability must be fully integrated into the workplace, not isolated.

I’m sure there are many organizations that will hire a person with a disability with the right skills for a job, but how many have the vision to consider that same person to run their company or organization? Take a look at people with disabilities who are professionals in your own organizations; they may just be the leaders you are looking for—right under your nose and ready to lead. I ask that you employ people with disabilities not just for a job but for a leadership career in your organization.

Although we have seen significant changes in the world, we still have a long way to go. As you reflect on this topic, consider these questions: What do you see when you look at a person with a disability? Do you see just a blind person, a person who is deaf, or a person who uses a wheelchair?

The next time you meet a person with a disability, I would like you to see a business colleague … possibly a person who could be your next manager or even the next CEO of your organization.

Until we change our perceptions and paradigms, we will never see what is possible. Until we see and act upon what is possible, we will never change the present.

Jim Sinocchi, Director for Workforce Communications, IBM Corp.

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