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What is National Disability Month, and how can you honor it at work?

What is National Disability Month, and how can you honor it?

Thanks to the tireless efforts of social and political figures throughout history, Americans with disabilities can enjoy the same privileges as anyone else. But that doesn't mean it's not an ongoing effort to maintain those privileges and expand equity for those who need it. When it comes to people with disabilities, as well as inclusivity in general, national observances like National Disability Month help to ensure that we don't lose sight of how far we've come and how far we need to go.

What is National Disability Month?

The full designation for National Disability Month is actually National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), which may give you a fuller picture of what it's about. Taking place in October, it's a month-long observation that celebrates the contributions of workers who have disabilities. The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) oversees the observation, but its driving force is really the multitudes of American employers and employees who push for inclusivity in policies, attitudes, and practices in the workplace.

The broad purpose of NDEAM is to educate the public about employment issues affecting people with disabilities as well as to honor the myriad contributions they've made to the workforce and larger society. The observation serves as a reminder that having a disability isn't synonymous with helplessness or suffering. As the Library of Congress points out, there's no scarcity of Americans who have overcome their disabilities to realize astronomical success in a broad swath of professional endeavors, including the arts, politics, education, and social reform. We're talking about major icons such as:

  • Alexander Graham Bell, an inventor with a learning disability
  • Harry Belafonte, a singer with dyslexia
  • Ray Charles, a musician with blindness from glaucoma
  • Daniel K. Inouye, a former senator who lost his right arm in World War II
  • Frida Kahlo, a painter with polio as well as injuries from a streetcar accident
  • Helen Keller, an author and activist with deafness and blindness
  • Dorothea Lange, a photographer with polio
  • Art Tatum, a musician with blindness in his right eye and partial blindness in the left
  • Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist, activist, and national hero with likely epilepsy and narcolepsy

NDEAM isn't the same as National Disability Awareness Month, which takes place in March. National Disability Awareness Month is a more general recognition of people with physical, developmental, cognitive, or intellectual disabilities, whereas NDEAM specifically centers on individuals in the workforce. The two observations are certainly related, though, as the former promotes equitable treatment of and opportunities for people with disabilities, and the latter helps to foster equity in professional environments for them. 

"The broad purpose of NDEAM is to educate the public about employment issues affecting people with disabilities as well as to honor the myriad contributions that they've made to both the workforce and the larger society."

The history of National Disability Month

The roots of NDEAM reach back to 1945, the year when Congress passed a public law designating the first week of October every year as National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. The week-long observation would evolve slightly in 1962 with the removal of the word "Physically," expanding its scope to include people with other types of disabilities. 

Finally, in the late 1980s, Congress voted to expand the length of the observation to a full month and revise the name to "National Disability Employment Awareness Month," a change in line with the general shift away from viewing people with disabilities as "handicapped."

Five facts about National Disability Month

Want to learn more about NDEAM? Here are some interesting facts you can share with your friends, family, and coworkers:

  • NDEAM follows a different theme every year. "Advancing Access and Equity" is the theme for 2023. Previous themes have included "Disability: Part of the Equity Equation" (2022), "America's Recovery: Powered by Inclusion" (2021), "Increasing Access and Opportunity" (2020), and "The Right Talent, Right Now" (2019).
  • Presidents Clinton and Obama used executive orders to expand professional opportunities for people with disabilities. President Clinton signed Executive Order 13163 in 2000, which increases employment opportunities for people with disabilities employed by the federal government, and President Obama signed Executive Order 13548 in 2010, which commits the federal government to be a model employer with respect to people with disabilities.
  • Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27% of Americans have some type of disability, the most common ones being related to mobility or cognition.
  • The World Health Organization reports that people with disabilities face serious inequity when it comes to health access. Consequently, they're more likely to die earlier and develop serious medical conditions such as depression, diabetes, or stroke.
  • Many disabilities are invisible. Called "hidden disabilities," they include chronic illnesses or disorders such as sleep disorders, kidney problems, and diabetes, as well as developmental disabilities like autism. The invisible nature of these disabilities can lead to challenges when searching for work.

How to celebrate National Disability Month at work

Though the ODEP oversees the observation, NDEAM relies on grassroots efforts to grow and thrive. No matter the work setting, you can contribute to those efforts in a number of ways. You can begin by becoming informed about the subject, such as by understanding the differences between developmental, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities, as well as by advocating for people with disabilities and the necessity of observations like NDEAM. Luckily, the U.S. Department of Labor provides handy resources that can get you started on your self-education. 

Other than those preliminary measures, here are some ideas for how to celebrate National Disability Month at work:

  • Decorations: Something as simple as putting up posters around the workplace can help spread awareness of NDEAM, what it stands for, and the important contributions that people with disabilities have made throughout history.
  • A formal discussion on inclusivity: A panel discussion with employees with disabilities and subject matter experts on disability inclusivity can enlighten the workforce about the need for NDEAM and related measures. 
  • A guest speaker with a disability: Hosting a guest speaker with a disability could allow the workforce to hear a firsthand account of what it's like to experience discrimination because of something they can't control. 
  • Support businesses owned by people with disabilities: Look online and you'll find numerous businesses owned by people with disabilities. You can get art, crafts, clothes, handmade merchandise, and more. Let your coworkers know about the businesses you find and encourage them to support these entrepreneurs, too.
  • Support a charity: As with businesses, you can also find heaps of charities that help or advocate for people with disabilities. You might consider creating an office cash pool to make a sizable donation to a charity collectively chosen by your team.
  • Volunteer: If your employer provides volunteer time off, offer help to a local organization that serves people with disabilities. You could, for example, check out local chapters of Volunteers of America.
  • Book club: If your employer endorses office social clubs, there may already be a book club in place, in which case the members could devote October to discussing a book about disabilities or one written by an author with a disability. And if there's no book club in place, why not start one?

Another way you can help is to encourage employers to be more inclusive toward people with disabilities. If you're currently looking for employment, do your part by focusing your job search on the right employers. Create a profile with CareerBuilder so that employers can find and give special attention to those who have proven records of enacting inclusive measures.

More tips about promoting inclusivity in the workplace

Inclusivity is good for business. Discover what employers are doing to promote equitable work environments.

If you'd prefer to work for a more inclusive employer, make sure you keep helpful relationships intact when you leave your current position.

For you job hunters, asking questions during an interview is crucial, especially if you're trying to gauge the employer's commitment to inclusivity.