Celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month 2023: Role Models with Disabilities

October 23, 2023Miriam Edelman

National Disability Employment Awareness Month, occurring every October, honors the contributions of employees with disabilities and highlights supportive policies that help employers and workers. This year's theme is "Advancing Access and Equity," coinciding with the 50 th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, part of which outlaws discrimination against people with disabilities (PWD) in federal government.

Many PWD are left behind, as documented by the much lower employment rates of this population than such rates of the general public. Some differences are because of age-related disabilities, but many employment disparities are not due to age. In 2022, employment rates were 21.3 percent for PWD and 65.4 percent for people without a disability. The employment rate for PWD is approximately twice as high as the unemployment rate for people without disabilities. While 30 percent of PWD are employed part-time, that percent is just 16 percent for workers without disabilities. PWD also are slightly more likely to work in service jobs and less likely to work in management and professional positions than people without disabilities, though exact employment rates vary by disability.

Let's use National Disability Employment Awareness Month as an opportunity to showcase prominent PWD, proving that employees with disabilities can succeed when they are given a chance. U.S. President Joe Biden, climate activist Greta Thunberg, former NFL star Steve Gleason, former U.S. Senator Bob Dole, abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and actress Marlee Matlin represent diversity in terms of gender, age, professional field, type of disability, variety of ways of acquiring a disability, race, country of origin, and historical time period. This post will showcase President Biden, Thunberg, and Gleason, and a follow-up piece about former U.S. Senator Dole, Tubman, and Matlin will be posted at the end of this month.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden, who endures a life-long stutter, joins Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and other Presidents as Presidents who have disabilities. Stutter is a condition that affects approximately 70 million people worldwide. Biden's struggle with his stutter increased his empathy for PWD; he helps others with stutters, keeping in touch with 15 of them. When talking about them, he said, "The point I make to these young people that I still work with, is that in fact it's critically important for them not to judge themselves by their speech. [To] not let that define them."

Despite having a stutter, U.S. President Biden has succeeded in a profession of public speaking. After being elected to the U.S. Senate at 29 years old (one of the youngest in history), Biden served as a U.S. Senator for 36 years before being a two-term U.S. Vice President (VP). At the end of his VP tenure, President Barack Obama awarded Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (with distinction), the U.S.'s highest civilian honor. When taking office in 2021, he became the U.S.'s 46 th and oldest President.

Greta Thunberg

Twenty year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg had the life-long diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, which is now viewed as autism. Some people with autism develop special interests, and hers was climate change. Individuals with autism also can be extremely honest and not sweep things under the rug. This quotation from Thunberg exemplifies these traits:

I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange. They keep saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all. And yet they just carry on like before. If the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that is black or white. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don't.

As a youth, Thunberg became a worldwide leader on climate issues. Her skipping school for almost three weeks in 2018 to fight for the climate inspired world-wide strikes by students. She spoke at the European Parliament and to legislatures in the United States and other nations. She also wrote multiple books and is the subject of a documentary, entitled I Am Greta. She also increased awareness of Asperger Syndrome, saying, "I have Aspergers and that means I'm sometimes a bit different from the norm. And-given the right circumstances-being different is a superpower."

Steve Gleason

Former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason, known for his blocked punt in the Saints' first home game after Hurricane Katrina, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) within a few years after retiring from the National Football League. ALS, also referred to as Lou Gehrig's Disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that harms muscles. It is unknown whether football caused Gleason's ALS, but a Boston University study reports that compared to the adult male population, NFL players are four times more likely to get and die from ALS. ALS resulted in Gleason no longer being able to walk, talk, and breathe on his own. He can communicate only via eye-tracking technology.

Gleason uses his pre-disability fame to help people with disabilities. After being diagnosed with ALS, Gleason along with his wife founded Team Gleason, which has given more than $20 million in "adventure, technology, equipment, and care services to over 30,000 people" with ALS. In 2015, the Steve Gleason Act of 2015 became law, and in 2018, the Steve Gleason Enduring Voices Act was passed as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018; both bills expand access to speech generating devices. The Gleason documentary discusses Gleason's ALS and ALS work. In 2020, Gleason became the first former NFL player to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. In his acceptance speech, he said:

No one is immune from anguish, tragedy, or adversity. Not even elected officials, NFL players, or even the most holy Saints. I suppose I don't see my story is a football story, or even an ALS story, but rather, a human story. The truth is that we all experience pain in our lives. But, I believe that the problems we face, are our opportunity, and define our purpose.

In Pirkei Avot 4:3, we read that "Ben Azzai taught: Do not disdain any person. Do not underrate the importance of anything for there is no person who does not have their hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun." As we mark National Disability Employment Month, let us all strive to make our workplaces more inclusive for people with disabilities by hiring them and providing proper accommodations so they can succeed. For more information, check out the RAC's guide to observe Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (which we celebrate in February). Do not write off people with disabilities. Give them a chance and hire them. They can be highly successful employees.

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