In Her Words Aug. 2013: Marca Bristo

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President/CEO, Access Living

In the 1980s, people with disabilities around the country organized for better access to transportation, education and housing. Taking control of their own lives, people with disabilities showed the world that disability was a natural part of human diversity that would impact all people at some point in their lives.

In many ways, the Disability Rights Movement followed in the wake of the Women’s Rights Movement. Yet, disability still lags behind in terms of corporate diversity. Over the past few generations, women have increasingly taken their rightful place within the spectrum of employment diversity. Though more work needs to be done, women can be found in leadership positions within and at the top of companies throughout the U.S.

More than 20 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities by and large remain the most unemployed and underemployed constituency within the country. People with disabilities confront more than anyone else the stigma that equates disability with an inability to work. It comes from generations of segregation, pity and charity; but despite the stigma, the majority of people with disabilities want to work. And when hired, their supervisors rank them as among their highest contributing and most loyal employees.

Unfortunately in spite of this, the stigma around disability is reinforced by myths that stand between disability and employment. Some believe accommodations for people with disabilities are too expensive. Yet, statistics show that 15 percent of accommodations cost nothing and 50 percent of accommodations cost less than $500.

Another misconception is that finding qualified people with disabilities is time consuming and expensive. Hiring all good employees takes an investment. But resources exist to support the recruitment and accommodation of people with disabilities. The Job Accommodation Network is a leading source of expert guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment. Additionally, the United States Business Leadership Network is a non-profit that shares the best practices in the hiring/promotion of and marketing to people with disabilities. Both organizations recognize why hiring people with disabilities makes good business sense.

The disability community is a large, untapped market. Corporate affinity groups that focus on disability are identifying employees who contribute to corporate diversity while also positioning the company to better reach the disability community. Doing so opens the portal to an enormous market niche. People with disabilities have a combined income of more than $1 trillion, with $220 billion in discretionary income. This market can go global with the United Nations Treaty on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which has been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and is waiting for U.S. Senate ratification.

With a pool of people with disabilities eager to succeed and valuable resources in place to support the hiring and accommodation process, the time is ripe for the disability community to fulfill its role within corporate diversity. It’s up to members of the corporate, non-profit and public sector to work together to ensure we seize that opportunity. And Access Living stands ready to support this effort.

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About Marca Bristo

Marca Bristo is a pioneer of Chicago’s Disability Rights Movement and a former patient of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. For 30 years, she and Access Living, Chicago’s center for independent living, have helped craft local, national and international reforms to protect the rights of people with disabilities and equip them with tools to lead independent, satisfying lifestyles.