What employers can learn about disability inclusion from John Fetterman’s Senate accommodations

February 14, 2023, 7:48 PM UTC
RowVaughn Wells and Rodney Wells sit with Vice President Kamala Harris during the funeral service for their son Tyre Nichols at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church on Feb. 1.
Andrew Nelles—Getty Images

John Fetterman, the Democratic Pennsylvania senator, returned to work yesterday after a brief hospitalization last Wednesday to assess a bout of lightheadedness. Fetterman, who experienced a severe stroke last May, won a contentious and competitive Senate race in November despite a challenging recovery and ramped-up attacks from Republican lawmakers questioning his fitness to serve.

He’s now learning to govern as a newly disabled person and doing it in public, making him one of the most high-profile disabled professionals working today.

A recent New York Times piece describes many of the accommodations Fetterman uses during his work day, which include live audio-to-text transcription for committee meetings and a custom desk with a closed-captioning monitor he uses when presiding over the Senate. But the article also describes a community of colleagues who are learning, too. “We’re going to have to learn our own styles with it,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D), referring to a talk-to-text tablet. “What I was saying was accurate even when I talked fast. I wanted to make sure it was accurate. It was kind of to imagine what it would be like to be him.”

For disabled talent, 2022 was a good year for getting a job and performing it effectively, often from the comfort of their homes.

That’s according to a 2022 disability trends report from the Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability.

The report uses an employment-to-population ratio figure to express the percentage of workers with disabilities relative to the broader population. The average monthly employment-to-population ratio for working-age people with disabilities (16-64) increased from 31.3% in 2021 to 34.8% in 2022. The trend was similar for workforce participation rates: 35.1% in 2021 to 37.8% in 2022.

“Labor shortages across the country mean that there was a disproportionate demand for workers compared to the number of people willing to fill positions. Hiring managers may have needed to break outside of their comfort zones to consider different segments of workers,” report coauthor John O’Neill, who runs the Center for Employment and Disability Research at the Kessler Foundation, said in a press release.

And they’ll stay put if adequately accommodated.

“The increase in work-from-home arrangements and greater flexibility in work hours seen during the height of the pandemic may have permanently opened new employment opportunities for people with disabilities,” said fellow coauthor Andrew Houtenville, a professor of economics and research director, in a statement accompanying the report.

But as employers increasingly insist that employees return to the office, these gains hang in the balance.

As I covered last fall, this matter is also a civil rights issue.

Race plays an enormous factor whenever a person experiences or lives with a disabling condition, amplified by existing health care disparities, biased assumptions, and the complicated lives of wage workers, who are more likely to be or become disabled. Black and Asian people with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed than their white or Latinx counterparts, and Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty. As a result, accommodation strategies must consider the entire scope of a person’s identity and context.

So, the pressure is now on employers to maintain the possibilities that a work-from-anywhere world presented to all employees with disabilities. (This should include employees who care for people with disabilities, too.) The U.S. Congress, which can agree on nearly nothing, has been an unexpectedly bright—well, to be fairer, a less dim—light on this issue.

But if employers are not tapping disability expertise in their hiring, recruiting, and return-to-work plans, then the positive trend is likely to reverse quickly.

O’Neill sounds optimistic.

“Today, more companies are partnering with disability organizations in their recruitment efforts,” he says. “And more are using outside assistance for onboarding workers with disabilities. We also see more employers adopting training on disability issues and cultural competence…and reaching out to government and local resources regarding the provision of accommodations.”

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ruth Umoh.

On Point: The Super Super Bowl

Quite a bit of culture to unpack in what turned out to be a nail-biter of a game.

Abbott Elementary star Sheryl Lee Ralph opened the show with a beautiful performance of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as the Black national anthem, immediately triggering half the fans and viewers, including some in Congress.

Super Bowl LVII was the first time in NFL history that both teams’ starting quarterbacks were Black—Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City team and Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s important, says former player Doug Williams, who was the first Black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl 35 years ago. (Williams, who threw four touchdown passes in a single quarter, went on to be the game MVP.) Watching Sunday's game was an out-of-body experience for him. “I can honestly say that I got chills. I mean, I got chills, I got emotional, I got tears in my eyes,” he told NPR. “It wasn't about the fact that, at that moment, we're going to have two young Black quarterbacks going to the Super Bowl. It was really about the guys who were denied opportunity before me to get a chance to play quarterback in the National Football League.”

It was also a comeback for Rihanna, who hasn’t performed publicly in years and did it while pregnant. While some were disappointed that she reversed her original decision not to take the half-time field out of respect for Colin Kaepernick, she made the most of the merchandising moment.

And, since we’re talking about disability, two other stars were born.

The first is Colin Denny, a deaf Navajo man who used both American Sign Language (ASL) and Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) to sign “America the Beautiful” during the pre-game show. And the second was the resplendent Justina Miles, whose signing performance interpreting Rihanna’s set went viral. Deservedly so.

On Background: Clarification

Last Friday, raceAhead covered new research from Revelio Labs, showing an outflow in DEI-associated jobs in 2022. We updated the story to draw a distinction in the data. Revelio Labs looks at publicly available figures from a wide variety of data sets, which could include jobs with a diversity component that are not considered "diversity professionals" who report to a company's DEI leadership. In the case of Target, whose data appears in the report, the jobs that Revelio Labs examined did not directly correlate with the DEI functions that Target considers part of its core diversity team. I asked the retailer to clarify: “As for our dedicated team of DEI professionals, whose core roles are focused on building and guiding our DEI-specific strategies, we have not made any reductions to that team. In fact, our DEI team has only continued to grow year over year, reinforcing our commitment in this space and the impact we aim to create through our efforts.”

Parting words

“America only has ONE NATIONAL ANTHEM. Why is the NFL trying to divide us by playing multiple!? Do football, not wokeness.”

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.)

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