Good afternoon. Thank you for your kind introduction. It is wonderful to be here with you all this afternoon – my thanks to LRP Publications for the invitation to come and speak here today. As a Commissioner with the EEOC, HR and EEO folks are my folks! I’m glad there’s a conference like this where you can all get together.
I’ve been asked to talk to you all about “Providing Real Opportunities for People with Disabilities.” There’s no shortage of things I have to say on this topic and HR Week in NY is the perfect place to talk about diversity and inclusion. Today, I want to talk to you about what diversity really means, and why you should care. But before we jump right into that, I want to give everyone a perspective on where we are today as it relates to where we started.
We’re living in a historic time, one that I believe we will look back on as a turning point for cities, states, and the country as a whole. As a nation, we have made tremendous strides in numerous areas. We are seeing the rise of a woman and an African American man as candidates for the Presidency. Not necessarily firsts, but perhaps now viable more than ever. We are seeing our nation pay serious attention to environmental issues. Even both Manning brothers now have a ring – although the fact that one came at the expense of my Patriots is still painful to remember. Unemployment is low and our nation’s citizens, on the whole, are more prosperous than ever before.
We’re also living in a time where homelessness remains prevalent. Concerns about violence in our schools plague our communities. Despite general economic prosperity, economic disparity is at an all-time high. Various segments of the population still find themselves denied opportunities without justification. How cities, states and the nation respond to the challenges and opportunities presented will define this time in history.
Through it all, American citizens have always been willing to serve a cause greater than ourselves. We have seen time and time again that it is the act of helping each other in a time of need that defines our individual character and ultimately, the character of our Country. It is this history that gives me hope.
When looking at our life and times from an employment perspective, there are still many challenges on the horizon. At the EEOC, as most of you know, we enforce civil rights in employment. This includes protection under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Equal Pay Act. We also keep trend data related to our enforcement work. This data, along with the data collected by other groups, including the Department of Labor, helps us to take the pulse of the working world.
What we know is that we are transitioning from the workforce and workplace of the 20th century to the workforce and workplace of the 21st century. The demographics of America's workforce are undergoing significant changes now and will continue to change over the next few years. For example, the workforce today is ethnically more diverse – 21% of today’s employees are persons of color as compared to just 12% in 1977. As well, the proportion of men and women in the workforce is almost equal.
There are other changes as well:
It’s clear that employers must continually search for talented and trained employees. Maintaining a skilled and competitive workforce is one of the most important challenges you and our country are facing today. Meeting that challenge necessitates looking for employment candidates in traditional and non-traditional venues.
According to two recently released hiring trends surveys conducted by CareerBuilder and Manpower, 40% of hiring managers surveyed say their companies will increase the number of full time employees, and 40% say they currently have openings for which they can't find qualified candidates. The survey reports that most job openings are in healthcare, administrative/clerical, sales, accounting/financial operations, customer service, information technology, management, and engineering. I suspect these categories are fairly similar to those your agency is looking to fill. The questions is and has always been, who are you going to reach out to, to fill those positions? What if all your “traditional” wells run dry? What then?
While you ponder those questions, let me circle back to the topic of diversity, now that we have some foundational information. Diversity is more than just a politically correct word that people toss around. It’s about inclusiveness. It’s about examining the barriers that keep some people out and allow others in. Most importantly, diversity affects your bottom line.
Diversity seems to be on lots of people’s minds these days. In the last six months I’ve been asked to speak on the topic at least a dozen times. Last February the EEOC actually held a Commission meeting wherein diversity was central to the discussion.
During the meeting, a great deal was said about the value of diversity. We had academics as well as diversity practitioners explain why diversity is worth striving for – not because it is politically correct or morally correct, but because diversity increases the success of an organization. We learned – well, I already knew, but always enjoy hearing again – that diversity is directly related to an improvement in the bottom line. Obviously, the bottom line, and improvement to it, is what all businesses are striving for, whether you’re Kraft Foods, IBM, the Marine Corps or USDA!
Any organization – including Federal agencies – that wants to be successful in today's world must recognize and use diversity to their advantage. This means that diversity management programs must not stand alone. Instead, these programs must be recognized as a critical link in achieving the agency's specific mission or business needs, relative to employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. This is the business case for valuing diversity.
This business case for diversity has two significant elements. First, the labor market has become increasingly competitive. We know that sixty percent of the government’s employees, including 90 percent of its 7,000 senior executives will be eligible to retire in the next decade. Not all those eligible to retire will do so as soon as they are able, but the peak of retirements will hit later this decade. The Federal Government must use every available source of candidates to ensure that each agency has the high-quality workforce that it needs to deliver its mission to the American public. Any agency that fails to take steps to recruit among the full spectrum of the labor market is missing a strategic opportunity. Managers need to take this challenge seriously.
Second, the changing demographics of America mean that the public served by the Federal Government is also changing. When agencies recruit and retain an inclusive workforce – one that looks like the America it serves – and when individual differences are respected, appreciated, and valued, diversity becomes an organizational strength that contributes to achieving results.
Diversity means having a variety of views, approaches, and actions for an agency to use in strategic planning, problem solving, and decision making. It also enables an agency to better serve the taxpayer by reflecting the customers and communities it serves.
This conclusion has been supported by specific research showing that an effective diversity strategy has a positive effect on cost reduction, resource acquisition, creativity, problem solving, and organizational flexibility. Each of these actions has a direct impact on achieving the mission and business of the agency.
Now, hearing that diversity makes good business sense, as I said, was no revelation to me. I’ve known this to be true for years and seen first hand the benefits reaped by having a diverse workforce. Nonetheless, I may still be in the minority in my thinking.
There are still those who hear the word diversity and believe it’s simply code for preferential treatment being afforded to minorities. Few would ever admit such a belief, of course, but I suspect that’s what underlies most opposition to the concept of diversity.
I’m here to tell you that that’s not what diversity is about. This bias against diversity initiatives underlies this insidious belief that minorities are inherently less qualified than everyone else. This bias affects Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, immigrants, anyone who speaks with an accent, women and, notably, people with disabilities. It is this group, people with disabilities, that I want to focus on.
Is disability a component of diversity? Ponder that while I tell you a story. Every year, as some of you may know, the magazine Diversity Inc. publishes a list of the “Top 50 Companies for Diversity.” In addition to the big overall list, they also include what they call “specialty lists.” This includes lists of the top companies for women, the top companies for Asians, the top companies for Hispanics, etc. Among the many specialty lists is one called the “Top 10 Companies for People with Disabilities.” As you can imagine, that’s the first one I read! However, after reading it, I noticed there was a glaring omission within this list, as compared to all the other specialty lists. Any idea what was missing? Actual statistics!
For every other specialty list, Diversity Inc. includes statistics to back up the ranking of the organization within the list. For example, Diversity Inc. reported that, for the top company for employment of African-Americans, 17% of the overall workforce and 24% of all new hires were African-Americans. That’s pretty compelling.
So, how do the top companies for people with disabilities measure up? How many people with disabilities are employed by these top companies? How many are executives? What percentage of new hires are people with disabilities among these top companies?? Since it wasn’t reported in the article, as it was for every other minority group, I called Diversity Inc. and asked them.
Sadly, Diversity Inc. couldn’t provide answers to any of my questions. They said they looked at the following factors to decide who the TOP companies for people with disabilities were:
So let me ask the same questions of you. What is the diversity of your organization? Are you providing equal opportunities to all groups? When you think diversity, is it more than just a policy? Is it more than just lip service? What about for people with disabilities?
Now, before you all lie to me and tell me how great you’re doing in this area, for all groups, I’ll confess up front that I already know the answer to those questions for those of you who work for federal agencies! The EEOC collects employment data on all federal agencies, so I know how each of your agencies is performing in this area. And it’s not good. Most federal agencies have some work to do. In FY06, people with severe disabilities represented only 0.94% of the total federal work force. That amounts to less than 25,000 people in a workforce that is more that 2.6 million people strong. That also represents a decline over the last fourteen years for our government overall. In fact, over the last ten years, despite the fact that the government gre by about 15%, the population of PWSD still declined by about 5%.
We can do better than that. The federal government must do better than that.
It is estimated that roughly 54 million Americans have disabilities. An estimated 30 million of that 54 million are of working-age, and about half of that 30 million is made up of individuals with severe disabilities. By severe, I mean disabilities like blindness or deafness . . . partial or complete paralysis . . . things like that. Fifteen million working-age people with severe disabilities amounts to roughly 5% of our overall population. Given this, you’d expect to see PWSDs employed at about a 5% rate, right? Well, we’re not. One percent is not even close. That means there is a large labor pool out there that is not being tapped.
The unemployment rate for individuals with severe disabilities is estimated to be anywhere from 40 - 70%. Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether it is 40% or 70% -- both numbers are absolutely ridiculous. Think about a 70% unemployment rate in comparison to the national unemployment rate of 5%. No other group is faced with such poor opportunity. And we should not be either. Considering the consistent need for available talent, I’m shocked that employers would continue to overlook this potential talent pool, but I know that they do.
I often get asked how PWSD fare in the private sector? Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure because statistics for PWSD employed in the private sector are not collected. I think we can safely assume, however, even without statistics, that the private sector is not doing much better than the public sector, given the astronomical unemployment rate for people with disabilities. This is something I want to see change.
Disability, like gender or ethnicity, is a characteristic that lends dimension to the human experience. Just as having a work force diverse in race, sex, religion, age, etc., enriches an organization, individuals with disabilities also add value to the work place mix. However, the jobs of today are still using a cookie cutter approach to recruitment and hiring. This inherently shuts out talented and qualified individuals with disabilities.
I want to share a couple of personal stories for you. In my young life I’ve had two very different careers. Before I was a lawyer, I was an engineer. I graduated from a Massachusetts Maritime Academy (MMA) with a degree in marine engineering. Unfortunately, I was in a car accident while I was still a student at MMA. My plans to work as an engineer in the Merchant Marine became impossible, as a ship’s engine room is about as inaccessible as it gets. Instead, I took a job as a Mechanical Engineer with the FDA. I spent several years working in the lab testing medical devices. I was then asked to accompany Investigators to inspect Medical Device manufacturers. This worked out so well the District Director asked me to consider becoming an engineer/investigator and spend all my time inspecting medical device manufacturers.
I did this as an individual with a disability. I went to medical device manufacturers unannounced and uninvited to conduct whatever inspection they were due to receive. And that was in the mid 1980s when access wasn’t as prevalent as it is today (and when I was in my teens).
We developed a system to determine which manufacturers were accessible. And if we were wrong and I encountered an inaccessible location, we dealt with it. Not once was I unable to do my job because I was in a wheelchair. And yes, there were plenty of people who thought I would be, but they were wrong. The only things that really stood in my way were the pre-conceived notions of others about my ability and my disability.
Same was true when I then decided to launch a legal career. I remember my experiences interviewing for positions and looking for my first post-law school job. It never occurred to me that anyone would question my ability to pursue a legal career or that I would have a hard time getting a job – until it came time to find a position. Like my fellow graduates, I attended a string of interviews prepared to respond to tough, challenging, and thought-provoking questions. I did not anticipate the one question I was asked at almost every interview: “How would you get a book off a shelf at the library?” It never occurred to any of my interviewers that, during three years of law school, I might have worked that problem out already.
The question highlights one of the biggest problems for PWSD in trying to find a job – interviewers cannot move past disability related limitations. Instead of thinking about whether I was qualified to do the job, my interviewers were more focused on how I would physically get a book off a shelf. We don’t think to ask an African-American how they might deal with working with all white colleagues, or asking a woman how she might deal working with only men… but employers don’t hesitate to think about similar questions when it comes to applicants with disabilities.
We’ve got to move past that type of thinking. If an applicant with a disability applies for a position with your organization, you should be inquiring about the knowledge and skills they could bring to the job. Period. Their disability IS NOT RELEVANT. Biases must be checked at the work place door.
Disability is an element of diversity, but most of us don’t think about it that way. I think a lot of us immediately think “women and minorities” when we hear the phrase “equal opportunity” or the word “diversity.” Clearly, equal opportunity extends to all people – as do the laws we enforce at the EEOC. We need to remind ourselves and challenge our ingrained biases: EEO is not just for women; harassment doesn’t just happen in blue collar jobs; … and diversity includes disability.
The bottom line is that employers simply have to change their thinking. Federal agencies, private industry…wherever! A lifetime ago being a “lady lawyer” was actually a distinction. In my lifetime I’d like to see the novelty of being severely disabled and having a job also disappear.
Just as employers take steps to ensure that other minority groups are represented in their ranks, through targeted recruitment, effort should and must be put into including people with disabilities. When you reach out to the Hispanic Engineers Association on a college campus, don’t forget to also reach out to the Association of Engineers with Disabilities. Or, at the very least, contact the Disability Student Services office on campus – every college has one.
Employers that overlook candidates with disabilities are missing out on a whole sector of the labor pool. Frankly, those employers are also missing out on a best-kept marketing secret. Customers look for personnel they can relate to and who can relate to them. Consciously or not, people gauge comfort level based on whether they see themselves, their loved ones and their values reflected in an organization. By integrating disability as an element of its diversity plans, an employer tacitly identifies itself as accessible and, in that regard, exceptional.
In closing, I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts. I want each of you to consider the impact several exceptional people have had on our society and world. Julius Cesar. FDR. Attorney General Janet Reno. Former Senator Bob Dole. And the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Their individual and collective impacts were tremendous! And they were each a person with a disability! How many of us knew that? History books do not focus on the disabilities of these individuals. Rather, the focus is on their talents and contributions. And this is where is belongs.
The same is true of companies and public agencies that reach out to people with disabilities. We must move past impairments and concentrate on individuals, and individual talents in the workplace. The ability to do this will impact your bottom line, as well as our nations.
The workplace is where we change perceptions. It’s where we all finally realize that we’re not that different after all. And embracing diversity in this broadest sense may just shield you from the business end of that tsunami I mentioned… Thank you.