While the largest part of the word disability is ability, for many years, some employers seem to have focused solely on the “dis.” In 2020, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities (PwD) hit a seven-year high. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that rate was 8% for those with disabilities, ages 16-64. That’s more than twice the 3.6% unemployment rate for people without disabilities in the same range.

Susan Mazrui, Director of Global Public Policy for AT&T, said this happens largely because employers make hiring decisions based on what someone “can’t do” rather than what they can.

That’s something October’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is designed to tackle head-on. This year’s national theme, “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion,” reflects the importance of ensuring that PwD receive full access to employment during the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. 

It’s an observance that AT&T takes very seriously. In July, AT&T was recognized as a “Best Place to Work for Disability Inclusion,” for the seventh consecutive year, earning a 100% top score on the Disability Equality Index® – a joint initiative of the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN.

Mazrui, who is blind, said the biggest hurdle to success is perception, or more accurately, misperception. “Most people don’t have a lot of experience working with people with disabilities, so they don’t feel comfortable. We need to create those experiences and talk about disabilities, much like the way mental health and mental illness are being destigmatized. We normalize it,” Susan said. “Expand those experiences and you collapse the misconceptions.”

AT&T’s workforce is made up of over 7,000 employees who have self-identified as having a disability via AT&T iCount. The #iCount program allows all U.S. employees of AT&T to voluntarily (and confidentially) self-identify online in any or all of four categories: race, veteran status, disabilities and LGBTQ.

Susan explained that people with disabilities often fall into a “tyranny of low expectations.” Because those expectations are so low, the level of opportunities provided are as well. The way around that: “Don’t let our own fears and misconceptions limit someone else.” Susan points to the Middle East, where there has been a push to use the term “persons with determination” to focus on the skills and strengths that employees with disabilities bring to the workforce.

Susan said the pandemic’s disruption is changing perceptions. The transition to telework has opened doors for people with health issues, whether short-term or permanent. People with disabilities were early adopters of that tech – tech that made work possible, that wouldn’t otherwise have been, during the earliest days of the pandemic. “It showed how that can work with some people with disabilities even teaching their colleagues how to use those tools,” Susan said. “It has broadened how we think about the workplace.”

Interested in furthering the NDEAM effort? Check out this podcast from Workology featuring an interview with Susan. You can also find valuable resources at the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT) for everything from making a meeting accessible to working through COVID-19.

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