This year marks the 25th anniversary of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, observed every October in the United States to recognize the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities past and present. It is also the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, our Nation’s first legislative effort to provide a level playing field for people with disabilities. This dual anniversary is an opportunity for the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command to reaffirm its commitment to upholding Army traditions and values by recruiting, hiring, retaining and supporting employees with disabilities.
The theme for this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month is “Advancing Access and Equity.” The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment selected this theme to emphasize the importance of supportive and inclusive employment policies and practices to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities to prepare for and succeed in the workplace.
Inclusive cultures thrive when people contribute to promoting workplace well-being in big and small ways every day. This can take the form of ensuring that their workplace sets an inclusive tone, that accommodations are provided and requested when needed and that people provide support to their peers and colleagues with disabilities.
“No one can change their race, national origin or age,” explains Therese Ayers, Fort Detrick’s EEO Manager. “However, anyone at any time can become an individual with a disability.”
Ayers speaks from experience; when she started working for the Army in 1976, she had no disabilities. Today, she does.
“My entire life has changed since that time,” says Ayers. “That’s what happens to a lot of people with a disability. The impact can be sudden, or it can happen gradually over time. For example, when you're young you may have a simple knee injury, but then as you get older it develops into osteoarthritis. When that happens, you have to adapt.”
In the 15 years since the injury that changed her life, Ayers has seen the Army – as well as society at large – make significant strides in helping people with disabilities adapt and continue in their chosen careers. Today, Fort Detrick exceeds the DOD and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission goals for the percentage of the civilian workforce with disabilities; 13% of the Fort Detrick workforce has disabilities, and a further 3% has particularly severe disabilities or health conditions such as traumatic brain injury, deafness, blindness, missing extremities or epilepsy.
Soldiers and civilians who require accommodations in their workplace can refer to the Computer/Electronic Access Program (https://www.cap.mil) to find and request assistive technology devices designed to assist people with cognition, communication, dexterity, hearing and vision conditions. Employers can consult the Job Accommodation Network (https://askjan.org) to find guidance and strategies for implementing workplace accommodations that help increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
Ayers encourages employees who need an accommodation to let their employer know as soon as possible. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are generally not required to recognize that an accommodation is needed; in fact, they may be prohibited from asking an employee about their accommodation needs unless the employee’s disability represents a workplace or performance issue.
In his Presidential Proclamation announcing this year’s observance, President Biden wrote, “America is the only country in the world founded on an idea: that we are all created equal and deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives. This National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we celebrate all the people with disabilities who have moved our Nation closer to realizing that ideal and, in the process, have made America more prosperous, inclusive and humane. As we celebrate the progress we have made, may we continue to open the doors of opportunity even wider for people with disabilities by advancing access and equity.”
It may come as a surprise to learn that one of the most beneficial things that able-bodied people can do to foster an inclusive workplace is not to assume that a person with disabilities needs assistance, says Ayers.
“If you see someone struggling, you can always ask, ‘Hey, do you want me to get that for you?’” she says. “But sometimes it's a struggle they want to accomplish themselves. The most empowering thing you can do for them is to just treat them like you would anybody else.”
The Fort Detrick EEO Office encourages anyone with a disability to self-identify through the MyBiz portal (https://compo.dcpds.cpms.osd.mil/). If you have questions or need assistance, please contact the EEO Office at firstname.lastname@example.org.