This is our final blog in a month-long series for National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). To close out the series, we asked Lydia Brown to share her perspective on this year’s NDEAM theme, “A Strong Workforce is an Inclusive Workforce: What Can YOU Do?” as it relates to preparing youth with disabilities for a successful transition into the workforce.
I did not think of myself as disabled growing up. I was not identified as Autistic until the end of middle school, and for the next several years afterward, I would rarely, if ever, engage other youth with disabilities outside of a “treatment” or “therapy” context. And by the time I was old enough to start looking for a job, the idea of disclosing my disability wasn’t even on my radar. In fact, were I to believe the messages I was given, disclosing my disability would be a sign of weakness at best and a potential cause for adverse discrimination at worst.
Youth with disabilities in America grow up being told that there is something wrong with them that needs to be treated or fixed. The special education environment and unnecessary placements in institutional settings and sheltered work post-graduation contribute to the stigma of shame attached to disability. In the absence of well-publicized and well-coordinated programs designed to empower youth with disabilities as leaders both on disability issues and in their communities in general, we will not have access to the same opportunities that our peers without disabilities have as they transition from the school environment to the workplace.
When youth with disabilities are introduced to the idea of disability community and provided with an education about the rich and vibrant history of our community, they become better equipped to understand themselves as people with disabilities and potential leaders both in their own lives and for the community. When they have the opportunity to grow confidence in themselves as people with disabilities rather than in spite of having a disability, youth with disabilities become better equipped for success in the workplace. When they have access to leadership opportunities, they gain opportunities to develop transferrable skills for future employment, invaluable connections with community leaders, and confidence in their abilities to lead.
When youth with disabilities are given support in developing self-advocacy skills, they are preparing to successfully advocate for their future support needs in the work environment. When youth with disabilities are given opportunities to connect with organized self-advocacy, such as organizations led by and for people with disabilities, they are empowering themselves through connection to and engagement with community.
Schools need to be able to connect students with disabilities with local self-advocacy organizations and resources for inclusive internship and work experience programs. Career centers and disability support services offices at colleges and universities need to collaborate to provide programming that introduces students with disabilities to the job search and application process, provides opportunities for students to network with community employers in their fields of interest, and offers support in navigating the process of applying for internships and permanent employment. Disability support services offices at colleges and universities need to work with local organizations led by and for people with disabilities in order to provide opportunities for networking, connection, and engagement for students with disabilities.
Organizations led by and for people with disabilities, both at the national and local levels, frequently offer internship opportunities for youth with disabilities, but these announcements are easy to lose. It’s imperative that these organizations work with school and university offices to ensure that information about these opportunities makes it to students in order to ensure that students with disabilities can take advantage of them. Diversity-related leadership training, retreats, or programming, whether for faculty, staff, or students, must meaningfully address issues that face the disability community. In order to create a culture of inclusion and access, where students with disabilities are empowered to see themselves as part of a community rather than individual cases to be managed, both those with and without disabilities must be equipped with the education to understand disability as a component of diversity.
The benefits of this attitude and approach to diversity and leadership are evident not only in classrooms or in public policy, but also in advancing futures for disability employment. When employers understand that including employees with disabilities enhances the diversity and capabilities of their organizations and when youth with disabilities understand that disability is not a hindrance but an alternative way of moving, communicating, or thinking, both employers and people with disabilities will be far more likely to collaborate in order to ensure success both for the employer and the employee with a disability.
Increasing recruitment and retention of applicants with disabilities is only possible with strategies that target both employers and people with disabilities—to convince employers to understand the business case for targeting people with disabilities and to provide people with disabilities from an early age the skills they need to empower themselves to succeed in their chosen fields.
- The Guideposts for Success National Youth Transition Framework
- Youth Development and Leadership in Programs
- The 411 on Disability Disclosure: A Workbook for Youth with Disabilities
- Helping Youth Develop Soft Skills for Job Success: Tips for Parents and Families
- Disability History Timeline: Resource and Discussion Guide, National Consortium on Leadership and Disability for Youth
- Business Case for Hiring People with Disabilities, AskEarn.org
By Lydia Brown, sophomore at Georgetown University and past Patricia Morrissey Disability Policy Fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development.