Actions speak louder than words: Are we sending mixed messages to the community about the employability of people with disabilities?

As employment agencies tackle the goal of transforming their services to increase community employment for individuals with disabilities, how do they send a consistent message to employers and to the community at large that people who experience disability are competent workers? The responsibility of consistent messaging goes far beyond the role of the job developers. If a community and employers are familiar with an agency as “that large building where people with disabilities go because they can’t work in the community,” steps need to be taken to change that perception.

As agencies think about transforming their services they need to plan to transform their community image as well. What does the name of your agency portray to employers? Does it send a message about meaningful employment and competence, or does it solicit feelings of pity or charity? What activity does your agency participate in for fundraising? Do these activities portray individuals with disabilities as competent members of their communities or as people that need to be served and cared for?

What is your agency doing to promote employment and leadership of consumers with disabilities within their own agency? Are people with disabilities hired into valued agency jobs? Are they mentored to learn new skills and progress in their career? Do people with disabilities serve on the agency’s board of directors and participate in meaningful ways? Do people with disabilities participate in staff recruitment and interviews, staff development and performance evaluations?

Engaging all agency staff to support positive imaging for people with disabilities will aid your agency to increase employment outcomes for the people they serve. In essence, the job development staff could be quadrupled without creating additional positions. Messages are communicated to future employers, coworkers and neighbors about the competence of people with disabilities through the language support staff use when they talk about people or to people with disabilities. Agency staff are modeling to community members how to interact with people with disabilities through their own interactions with the people they support. Even the specific activities they participate in while in the community with people sends messages to the community that can support or undermine the agency’s goal at increasing community employment for the people they serve.

Ellen Condon is the Transition Projects Director at the University of Montana’s Rural Institute on Disabilities, and a member of the TASH Employment Committee.