The Valued Employees You're Missing: People With Disabilities

John Kemp, executive director of the US Business Leadership Network, urged DiversityInc's high-level audience at our learning event in Washington, D.C., to recognize the value in employees with disabilities.

In the disability community, John Kemp, executive director of the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN), is in the minority. He started life with his disability—which he manages now with two prosthetic arms and two prosthetic legs—but just 17 percent of people with disabilities are born with their disabilities. The other 83 percent acquired a disability along life's path. That, Kemp explained to DiversityInc's audience of chief diversity officers and executives at our two-day diversity event in Washington, D.C., is why most people with disabilities do not identify with the disability community.

"Why do we have to make a business case that we belong?" Kemp asked. "Our employees should look like our customers, like our suppliers, like our shareholders."

To attend DiversityInc's March 2–3 event, featuring New York Times Columnist Frank Rich, Ernst & Young Chairman and CEO Jim Turley and others, click here.

In October, the percentage of people with disabilities in the labor force was about 21 percent. That percentage hasn't changed since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Many workers with disabilities—particularly disabilities that are not easily seen—do not disclose their disability to employers or coworkers. Kemp said that this "hiding" takes considerable effort and, thus, hurts productivity. "We have a long way to go to create safe environments for employees with disabilities."

The good news is that progress is possible. Kemp recommended that employers emulate children in being open. "Children confront us; adults avoid us," he said. "Children are the ones doing it right. They ask, 'Can you drive?' 'Can you play basketball?' 'Can you hold this?' That's OK. It's the separation, distance and avoidance that cause problems."

Employers should also avoid making assumptions about a person's abilities. "People who aren't disabled, when confronting disabilities, think it's worse than it actually is. 'I don't think this person can do the job,'" Kemp said. "Ask and let the person tell you what he or she can or cannot do."

Finally, positive psychology and identifying with the core values of the disability movement—including heightened acceptance of differences, interdependence, humor and future orientation—can help bridge those gaps. There has been some progress as younger workers with disabilities are more willing to disclose their status and ask for what they need to be productive, but the problem isn't solved, Kemp said. "We've got a long way to go and it will take a long time."

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