by Vocational Rehabilitation Services Director Dee Torgerson and State Services for the Blind Director Natasha Jerde
We know Minnesotans share a strong commitment to the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility and opportunity for all. That’s why we feel so strongly about National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which was celebrated here and across the nation every October. And it’s why this year’s theme – Disability: Part of the Equity Equation – is so appropriate.
On October 10, we held an event to commemorate the many and varied contributions of people with disabilities to Minnesota’s workplaces and our economy. More than 300 individuals and businesses joined the virtual Zoom event. A panel discussion and several video vignettes featured individuals with disabilities who have achieved their wide-reaching career goals: an aerospace engineer, a health care worker, a baker, state government employees, a farmer, a forklift driver and an unemployment insurance analyst.
We learned about their experiences as they pursued education, searched for a job, and moved through the recruitment, onboarding, and career advancement process. Panelists shared practical tips and advice on how businesses can make disability part of the equity equation.
While each of the participants shared their own unique experiences and perspectives, there was also a common thread that ran through their message for employers and career seekers: Don’t focus on the disability; focus on the person!
The event reinforced DEED’s strong commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and opportunity. While people with disabilities are critical to solving the well-documented nationwide workforce shortage, equally important is the accessibility component of our commitment. Accessibility for all is essential if we are to achieve our goals of creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace. And an important component of accessibility is for employees to ask for accommodations – and employers to provide the accommodations for people with disabilities in exactly the same way they would provide accommodations to any employee.
As one panelist pointed out: “Everyone needs an accommodation at some point.”
More than half a million Minnesotans report having one or more disabilities, and the unemployment rate of this group is more than double that of people without disabilities. DEED’s two main disability employment programs – Vocational Rehabilitation Services and State Services for the Blind – provide career guidance and counseling to assist people with disabilities in achieving their employment goals. But just as importantly, we partner with Minnesota businesses to seek recruitment, training, and hiring solutions that can help them meet their workforce needs.
DEED Commissioner Steve Grove, who joined us for this event, noted that hiring people with disabilities is an important part of meeting employers’ hiring needs during the “sharpest labor shortage we’ve seen.” DEED remains laser-focused on helping workers find jobs, and on helping HR departments and hiring managers look to talent pools they might not have considered before – including people with disabilities.
During the event we shared numerous resources for businesses who want to further explore the opportunities for working with DEED to recruit, train, hire, and retain people with disabilities. As one of the event panelists said, we shouldn’t “look past” the disability, but rather embrace the potential. We know people with disabilities are capable of anything, just like anyone else. The variety of careers and stories the panelists shared today speaks to the value of businesses including and considering people with disabilities as the untapped workforce they truly are.