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Some Reflections on National Disability Employment Awareness Month
October 24, 2022 by Susan Prokop

Every October, the U.S. marks National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) to highlight the value that people with disabilities bring to America’s workforce and its economy. The 2022 theme for NDEAM is “Disability: Part of the Equity Equation.” In launching NDEAM, Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy Taryn M. Williams said, “A strong workforce is the sum of many parts, and disability has always been a key part of the equation. People with disabilities make up a wonderfully multifaceted group. By recognizing the full complexion of our community, we can ensure our efforts to achieve disability inclusion are, in fact, truly inclusive.”

October, as everyone knows, also precedes November’s Election Day. This year, the concepts of disability inclusion and job accommodations have arisen within the 2022 election cycle in some interesting ways to draw attention to what it means to be a person with a disability seeking public office and the extent to which myths and stereotypes about disability still affect someone’s “electability.” We usually think of FDR having to obscure his disability in order to run for and serve as President. However, this year, the primary for Maryland Comptroller included the Mayor of Bowie who acquired a spinal cord injury before he ran for that office. In a radio station interview, he recalled “People told me they couldn’t vote for me because ‘you’re in a wheelchair.’ But I ran and I won.” 

There has been some progress in the way disability has become a natural or accepted part of serving in office. In the last 20 to 30 years, several candidates and elected officials have highlighted family members’ experiences with disabilities as the reason for their support of disability rights and benefit programs. Structural modifications have been made to the House and Senate chambers so that Representatives and Senators using wheelchairs could preside over their respective bodies. Technology has opened up the possibility of virtual meetings between members and their constituents, alleviating some, but not all, of the access barriers that might once have impeded someone with a disability from serving the public.

The issue of technology accessibility – not just in public life but for all Americans - is one that Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) have sought to address in the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act (H.R. 9021/S. 4998). Inaccessibility of online job posting and application websites has been a growing concern as more and more companies use these portals for recruiting, hiring, and onboarding employees, as well as conducting ongoing operations. Beyond affirming that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires websites and applications used by certain businesses to be accessible by people with disabilities, the measure states that this requirement applies regardless of whether the business has a physical location or merely exists online. The bill also directs the Department of Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to issue regulations that help ensure people with disabilities have equal access to websites and applications.

Policy barriers can also be an impediment to persons with disabilities who wish to run for office. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has some complex rules concerning what constitutes “work.” People receiving Social Security disability payments may put those benefits at risk because campaigning for elected office could be interpreted as “work activity” by the SSA and other federal agencies. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) has introduced S. 4597, the Removing Access Barriers to Running for Elected Office for People with Disabilities Act, which would clarify that seeking elected office is not to be considered as an activity that would disqualify an otherwise eligible person from receiving federal disability benefits.

PVA has endorsed these measures because of the expanded opportunities they would afford those with disabilities to be part of even more areas of American life. Happy NDEAM! 
 

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