Dining for a Difference: What You Can Do Differently to Hire and Promote People With Disabilities

By Barbara Frankel


Kemp, Sepulveda

More than 50 million people in the United States have an Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)defined disability, yet only a tiny fraction of them find jobs in corporate America. Even fewer are promoted.

In an era of enhanced recognition of the importance of corporate diversity to business results, why is this talent pool so often ignored DiversityInc and The Viscardi Center held an intimate and important dinner discussion with 50 corporate leaders May 22 in New York City. The goal was to understand the issue and to have the companies begin to develop action plans to address these talent gaps.

Recognizing the Talent Gap

The scope of the workforce gap between people with disabilities and those without was outlined at the beginning of the evening by John Kemp, President and CEO of The Viscardi Center, and Barbara Frankel, Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of DiversityInc. Kemp was introduced by DiversityInc Chief Operating Officer Carolynn Johnson.

Key discussion points included:

  • 20 percent of adults with ADA-defined disabilities work full-time versus 69.4 percent of adults without disabilities
  • As Baby Boomers enter their senior years, one in seven people will have a disability
  • 24 percent of all households have family members with disabilities living with them
  • 83 percent of people with disabilities acquire them after they are born
  • The average annual wage for a family headed by a person with a disability is $36,000 compared with $60,000 for a family headed by a person without a disability
  • DiversityInc Top 50 companies have made more progress than others but still can do more. Seventy-two percent of the Top 50 have employee resource groups for people with disabilities, compared with 54 percent five years ago

For more facts and figures on people with disabilities, see Meeting in a Box: National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

“I’m almost amazed there hasn’t been a revolution about how disaffected people with disabilities are by the poor rate of unemployment,” Kemp said. “Why should employers care They are losing talent in the workplace. Disability employment discrimination still rains down on us.”

Effective accommodations, he said, are only a partial solution. “Attitude is a big challengehow we view people who are different from us,” he said. “Non-disabled people confronting people with obvious physical difficulties tend to generalize that we are less competent.”

Voices of People With Disabilities: 4 Stories

Two students, a corporate executive and the leader of a veterans program at Rutgers University told their stories with honesty and advice to the corporate leaders.

Kylie Long, HR Associate with New York Life (No. 25 in the Top 50), discussed her successful experience with The Viscardi Center’s Emerging Leaders internship program for college students with disabilities. Her assignment at New York Life led her to create an intern event for more than 100 interns; to work with New York Life’s disability employee resource group, Enable; and to help with a disability event.

Following her graduation from Emory University last year, she joined New York Life full time. She cited the advantages of mentoring and of having a strong employee resource group for people with disabilities.

“I was mentored by everyone I asked to go to lunch with and even people I didn’t,” she said. “Every project manager I’ve had asked the question: ‘How can I support your success’ I don’t think they asked because I have a disability but to help determine how I can be my best self to contribute to the team.”

Jim Sinocchi, Director, Workforce Communications, IBM (No. 23 in the Top 50), who broke his neck in a bodysurfing accident when he was 25, discussed the support he’s had at IBM and his frustration in not becoming a vice president.

“IBM cares for its people. I’ve been employed by IBM for 38 years, 15 years as an executive. But I was trying to get a job as a vice president,” he said. “It’s not always who or what you know, it’s do they like you. And sometimes people don’t like you because of race or gender or because you have a disability.”

Steve Abel, retired U.S. Army Colonel and Director of Veteran and Military Programs and Services, Rutgers University, noted that companies need to “provide for veterans the kind of place where if a veteran is having an issue, it can be resolved.” He noted Rutgers’ recipe for success in graduating veterans by capitalizing on their strengths and recognizing their service to their country. He urged them to use employee resource groups and mentoring to help veterans be successful.

While these three speakers were amazing and inspirational, the star of the night was 16-year-old Mariah Sepulveda, a 10th-grader at the Henry Viscardi School at The Viscardi Center.

Mariah, who had a childhood cancer, neuroblastoma, that left her with permanent health issues, starred in a recent school play, is a wheelchair basketball player, appeared in a national PSA for anti-bullying of people with disabilities, and is an entrepreneur.

“I hope when I get to my first job, people see past the wheelchair and see my determination. So many times I’ve been approached by an individual and talked to like I was 5 years old,” she said.

Mariah’s starting a Stay Positive movement to spread awareness. Later in the evening, she discussed labels and recalled a book that showed a “disabled” car. “When you look up the definition of ‘disabled,’ it said broken. We are not broken. We have abilities and ways to overcome tasks,” she said.

What Will You Do Differently Tomorrow

DiversityInc’s Johnson eloquently summed up the evening’s call to action, asking companies to have diverse slates requiring hiring and promoting people with disabilities; to mentor interns with disabilities; to create technology that makes the company’s communications as accessible as possible; and to include disability-owned businesses in supply chains.

She urged companies not to accept excuses that there aren’t enough qualified people with disabilities. “Don’t just accept what they tell you,” she advised. “Kick it back and make them do it again.”

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