As you may know, October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the United States. This motivated us to ask Jerry Rubin, President and CEO of Jewish Vocational Service in Boston, several questions on the employment of people with disabilities. The Ruderman Family Foundation is proud of our partnership with JVS in our Young Adult Transitions to Work program:
This full-service initiative helps many Boston-area young adults with disabilities prepare for and find jobs that will bring them independence, marketable skills and a brighter future. We offer you this Q-and-A with Jerry today to inspire discussion and hopefully change in your communities as well.
— Jay Ruderman
Zeh Lezeh: Have you seen public awareness of disability employment issues change over the course of your career? If so, how?
Jerry Rubin: I have seen public awareness change, though I think we still have a long way to go. Disability issues in general have come out of the shadows, particularly since the passage of the ADA, and as those with disabilities have experienced broader inclusion, this has impacted employment as well. Twenty years ago, most disability employment efforts involved sheltered workshops, which while an important service, tended to isolate and in some ways hide those with disabilities from the traditional job market, employers, and other employees. Today, more organizations, including our own, have embraced models of competitive employment by which individuals with disabilities are supported in their efforts to find, secure, and retain jobs in mainstream workplaces. Though this approach does not meet everyone’s needs, it works for far more individuals than we might have thought in the past, and it can be both empowering and transforming, for the disabled individual, their employer and co-workers. That said, unemployment among people with disabilities remains far above the average for the working population overall, and that is such a waste of talent. So, we still have a long way to go.
ZL: In your experience, what are the greatest barriers among prospective employers to hiring people with disabilities?
JR: I think that the greatest barriers are ignorance and fear. Many people, whether they are employers or not, have misconceptions and stereotypes about people with disabilities. Employers fear that “there will be problems” — with litigation, productivity, and employee relations. Staff are not typically trained and are unsure how to provide reasonable accommodations, or even know what that means. But I think that overall, as with any prejudice, ignorance and lack of experience are the primary barriers.
ZL: In your experience, what are the greatest benefits to employers of a fully inclusive workforce?
JR: The benefits are many. Of course, providing opportunities to talented individuals who can rise to their full potential, and may not have had that opportunity otherwise, is perhaps the greatest benefit. But from a more bottom line perspective, we find that employees with disabilities are among the most dependable and productive employees that employers can hire. They bring talent and dedication to their workplaces, and as a bonus, as with any diversity effort, disability hiring enhances workplace culture as diverse individuals learn and grow from and with each other.
ZL: How can society best prepare people with disabilities for employment?
JR: At the heart of any effort to increase disability employment is high expectations. If we expect and believe that individuals with disabilities can and will be incredible, talented employees, and we provide them with the skills, and opportunities to prove it, they can and usually will exceed everyone’s expectations. If we have low expectations, we will get low results. Specifically, I think we need to give individuals with disabilities the skills and tools they need to compete with other candidates through education, training, and guidance. We need to focus on work skills earlier, perhaps as early as elementary school, and certainly in high school. We need to provide serious vocational training that reflects the skills that employers expect and require, and pair that with real work experiences through internships. Finally, we need to include employers from the beginning. We already have many wonderful employers who are deeply committed to hiring individuals with all kinds of abilities and disabilities. We just need more, and it is up to all of us to get them involved.
ZL: How can the Jewish community best support the employment of people with disabilities?
JR: First: by committing to diversity in our own workplaces, including individuals with disabilities. Second: by focusing even more attention on this issue, and continuing to provide time and resources that support education, training, placement and support services for people with disabilities. In this way, we will live up to our values, and greatly strengthen our community.