A Publication of WTVP

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). The month was dedicated to recognize the talents, skills, and dedication of disabled Americans in the workforce. The theme for 2003 is "America Works Best When All Americans Work."

The Office of Disability Employment Policy (under the U.S. Department of Labor) has the lead in planning NDEAM activities and materials to increase the public’s awareness of the contributions of American workers with disabilities. Recent estimates put America’s disabled count between 30 million to 50 million.

The effort to educate the American public about issues related to disability and employment actually began in 1945, when Congress enacted a law declaring the first week in October each year "National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week." In 1962, the word "physically" was removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. Finally, in 1988, Congress expanded the week to a month and changed the name to "National Disability Employment Awareness Month."

One of the more visible aspects of this cause, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), was made federal legislation back in 1990. The ADA was enacted to allow disabled persons to participate more fully in society, opening doors for countless Americans by removing barriers; improving employment opportunities; and regulating public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications.

The ADA strictly limits the extent to which employers can make disability an employment consideration. Basically, employers shouldn’t even inquire about conditions that even appear to be disabilities during the applicant intake process. In the staffing world, if an applicant volunteers information about a disability, it need not and should not be disclosed to the agencies client. It can, however, be discussed with the applicant to plan for reasonable accommodation. Finally, persons infected with HIV or suffering from AIDS are protected by the ADA.

In general, a person’s disabilities can only be considered if it relates to an essential function of the position to be filled. For example, if a position requires driving, an applicant with a sight impairment might be legally excluded from consideration.

Another aspect of ADA requires the employer to make accommodation for an employee’s known disability in every reasonable manner. Many accommodations, thankfully, are reasonable and easily implemented: a small ramp for access, shaving the legs of a table down to provide a lower work surface, etc. Other accommodations, such as an excessively costly building renovation at a small business, aren’t considered reasonable.

In both the traditional and staffing business world, great strides have been made in employing individuals with disabilities. Both agencies and companies alike have embraced the value that individuals with disabilities bring to their workforce. In addition, more emphasis and focus will undoubtedly continue to be directed towards this important part of America’s workforce as the coming employee shortage becomes reality. Stay tuned. IBI