Yes, you’re about to read this correctly: I applied to over three-thousand (3,000) jobs over a several month job search during, and after completing, grad school in 2015. No exaggeration! Over three-thousand applications were sent out, yielding dozens of both phone and in-person interviews. I’m not sure whether my multiple disabilities negatively impacted my interviews or not. Yet, during an earlier internship with the Starkloff Disability Institute and later involvement with the Next Big Step Program (St. Louis disability organizations), I was taught to convey my abilities, skills, education, and potential during job interviews. It was these experiences; my education in the inclusive public schools in Chesterfield, Missouri; and my fellowship with RespectAbility, that led to my Masters in Public Administration and subsequent employment. Based on my job search experience — and on the experiences of others like me — it is so essential to train HR personnel and hiring managers to see beyond the disability. Whether in Missouri or elsewhere, HR personnel need to learn to see the ability of their many worthy candidates with disabilities.
October marks the annual celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This month is a chance to celebrate job seekers with disabilities who are striving to work and employers who are recruiting talented employees with disabilities. The theme for NDEAM 2019 is “The Right Talent, Right Now.” Indeed, employment matters for people with disabilities for more than just financial reasons. Employment matters because people with disabilities are seeking the opportunity to achieve independence, just like anyone else.
Celebrating NDEAM this year should be a call to action for the great state of Missouri. Many other states outperform the Show-Me State when it comes to jobs for the one-in-five Americans living with a disclosed disability. In a recent ranking, 172,283 Missourians with disabilities had jobs, putting that state’s disability employment rate at 37.1 percent. A recent ranking done by RespectAbility, a nonpartisan disability inclusion organization, found that Missouri ranks 31st out of the 50 states in terms of disability employment.
Missouri needs to fully implement an Employment First strategy where critical social programs for youth and adults with disabilities are oriented toward ensuring that getting a job is the top priority for individuals with disabilities. That goal is reinforced with high expectations among the teachers, coaches, and parents around that individual.
Missouri can further capitalize on past successes by following the example of states that show constant improvement, such as Florida and Ohio. Both can attribute a portion of their growth in disability employment to Project SEARCH, a program for young adults with disabilities to improve their skills, learn from job coaches and ultimately find a job. Data shows that 70 percent of SEARCH interns who complete their training obtain competitive employment. By expanding such critical programs, Missouri can increase the number of people with disabilities entering the workforce.
Companies that embrace employees with disabilities clearly see the results in their bottom line. According to Accenture, disability-inclusive companies have higher productivity levels and lower staff turnover rates, are twice as likely to outperform their peers in shareholder returns and create larger returns on investment.
The fact is that disability is part of the human experience. It is nothing to fear because most of us will be affected by it eventually, whether by accident, aging or illness. Opening more job opportunities to people with disabilities throughout Missouri will mean stronger communities and a better economy for all. Achieving this goal requires all Missourians working together because people with disabilities are the right talent, right now.
Kenny Kalman is a self-advocate from Chesterfield, Missouri, who makes efforts to move progress in the disability community and whose current federal job focuses on education.