Jessica with retired Senator Harkin in his Washington, D.C. office.
On Dec. 3, we celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This month, we also mark the 10th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. At no point in my lifetime have so many people with disabilities had so many opportunities and attention all over the world. Yet, we still face plenty of challenges in the disability community. Disability in the workplace is one of them. Better put, disability that’s not in the workplace.
Take a look around. Are there people with disabilities working in your office? Are there people with disabilities serving you coffee? Recently my husband, Patrick and I were resting after a long bike ride at a coffee shop in Tucson, Arizona. A gentleman with intellectual disabilities was sat just behind us, being interviewed by a manager from the chain grocery store, Trader Joe’s.
I believe people with any type of disability should be given a chance to work, and I was so pleased to hear that Trader Joe’s (one of my favorite stores) is hiring people with disabilities. Because the reality is, Trader Joe’s is among the few. Globally, fewer than 20% of people with disabilities currently work, according to the International Labour Organization.
Everyone remembers their very first job, don’t they? With or without a disability, any person’s first job helps them mature, gain significant life experience, and undoubtedly, leaves a lasting impression–maybe not always a good impression, but an impression nonetheless.
For me, it was the summer of my high school senior year. I felt independence approaching as I prepared to make that big transition from high school to college! I applied for a job within the university that would require me to make phone calls to alumni, asking them to donate to the university.
I wasn’t sure how the university would react to my disability, but with such excitement about my future, nothing held be back from applying. In fact, similarly to most people with disabilities, I didn’t even think of myself as having a disability–so I went ahead and submitted my application.
I interviewed and was asked to join the team. As I toured the office my first day, I saw that one of the employees was visually impaired with a cane propped up against his station. I wondered if his working there set a precedent for other people with disabilities, and if that was why it was so easy for me the get the job. Regardless of the reason, the job was mine and I was thrilled.
This job gave me such a confidence boost. I remember my first day like it was yesterday. The day started with a pep talk from management with incentives for high performance. On that day–my first day–the first person to receive a $500 alumni pledge would get a P.F. Chang's gift card!
Amazingly enough, my very first call led to an alum pledging the first $500 for that day and their company even matched it with another $500. I was ecstatic! That first job not only boosted my confidence–receiving a bonus my first day didn’t hurt–but it also became part of the rite of passage into adulthood.
I wish all workplaces were equally as welcoming like Trader Joe’s and the one I experienced. But the fact of the matter is that most work places don't give people with disabilities a chance. In fact, in 2015, only 17.5% of people with disabilities were employed in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is not ok.
People with disabilities experience life differently than people without disabilities, but it doesn’t make us any less qualified. Perhaps it makes us even more qualified, because we’re able to contribute something greater than someone who hasn’t faced as many challenges throughout the life.
People with disabilities have more challenges than the average person. We are conditioned–out of necessity–to come up with more and potentially efficient solutions. These life challenges enhance our experiences, and even more importantly, our skills, which we use to enhance the work we do, and to add to the teams we join.
For some of us the smallest tasks like getting dressed don’t come easy. It requires creativity, ingenuity, and innovation. Take my case for example: In order to be independent, I had to learn how to dress myself on my own. I use a dressing hook that attaches to the wall so I can hang my pants up as I slip into them. As early as kindergarten, I had to learn to tie my shoelaces with my toes, and then slip my feet in.
People with disabilities are hardwired to think outside the box. This conditioning over time has given us an innate ability to see things from a different perspective, which absolutely enhances the impact we can have at work.
In 2013, I met Senator Tom Harkin (now retired) in Washington, D.C. We chatted about aviation–since we’re both pilots–and the work we were both doing to support ratification of the UN Convention Rights on the Persons with Disability in the U.S. Senate. Unfortunately, ratification remains a ways off. In the meantime, we're both committed to increasing the number of people with disabilities, wherever they're born, to land meaningful, waged jobs.
In fact, on Dec. 7 and 8, Sen. Harkin is convening more than 180 leaders from governments, businesses, foundations, NGOs, and more—across 31 countries—in Washington, DC. for the inaugural Harkin International Disability Employment Summit. Attendees will share ideas, offer suggestions, and develop strategies for increasing disability employment.
Disability or no disability, Harkin Summit attendees will work to create more paths to decent work for people with disabilities. I’m so thrilled that he’s spearheading this important Summit.
During the meeting, Handicap International will release its new white paper—here's a sneak peek—on the situation of wage employment of people with disabilities in ten low-income countries. The paper will serve as a resource for local businesses and employment bureaus that are piloting innovative ways to get people to work, and retain their skills.
So to all employers—please open your minds and your office doors to skilled job seekers with disabilities. See past any obvious disability, and give them a chance. You’ll be glad you did.