October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month

by Holly Wessels, PHR, CPDM

If your work world is anything like mine, you probably know a lot of acronyms.  As a Disability Specialist, my days consist of ADAAA, FMLA, WC, DOL, EEOC, SHRM, JAN, and EAP.  (There will be a test at the end.) And occasionally a ROTFL is thrown in there!  But recently, I learned a new one, NDEAM.  I attended my first NDEAM conference last year and it was an eye opener!  So many amazing speakers, resources, and insight.  I left there feeling inspired and excited to incorporate what I learned into my work.  Here we are a year later and it’s almost NDEAM month again.  

NDEAM, National Disability Employment Awareness Month, is observed every October by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.  According to the DOL website, “NDEAM celebrates the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities past and present and showcases supportive, inclusive policies and practices that benefit employees and employers alike.”

Also, of importance this year, it’s been 50 years since the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on disability in federal programs.  This was the first legislation to address access and equity for people with disabilities and paved the way for the ADA in 1990.  

The NDEAM theme this year is “Advancing Access and Equity: Then, Now and Next”.  I think this reiterates the fact that we need to look back at where we were and recognize that we need to keep moving forward.  As a nation and a society, we have come so far since then, but there is and will always be room for improvement and advancement.  We are never going to be done with our work for access and equity.  

Did you know that section 14c of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) allows employers to pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage? Known as “subminimum wage” it was Fair Deal Era legislation that isn’t pertinent today and began being challenged in the 1960’s by the National Federation of the Blind.  While it remains legal at the federal level, many states have slowly been abolishing the practice.  A law that may have made sense in a post war America, doesn’t make sense now.

Thinking about my own employment experience, 20+ years ago there wasn’t a department of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity at my employer.  Not that those things weren’t important, but we didn’t know what we didn’t know.  Eventually, a committee was formed of a few passionate individuals, me included.  We plugged away at bringing awareness and understanding.  Many years later, thanks to a forward-thinking executive leadership team, the department of DE&I was formed. It’ still evolving and I’m sure years down the road there will be new challenges and opportunities we never imagined.  

I heard a saying once, “You made the best decision at the time, with the information that you had”.  Our predecessors, who started this disability equity battle 50 years ago, were striving to make wise decisions and positive impact.  But it was a different world then.  There were no remote jobs, Covid, or artificial intelligence. Heck, back then they allowed smoking in hospitals!  As time goes on, we learn more and must make better decisions.   

And so, it is also with disability awareness and inclusion.  This month is a time to highlight the great things that are being done and the ideas that are on the horizon.  Big or small, all changes make a difference.  In the words of the great civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.” 

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