Today, a confluence of factors is prompting America to change the way it thinks about age and work. The economic climate, shifting perceptions of retirement, increased options for workplace flexibility and that infamous “baby boom” bubble are all contributing to people working longer.
Many of these skilled, experienced workers will develop disabilities as they age, or existing disabilities will affect them more. To retain and support their talents, employers can implement a variety of workplace practices, most of which benefit all workers.
This so called “graying” effect is just one more example of how the issue of disability employment is currently being redefined — both in terms of who we include in a disability context and how we think about disability issues. A critical paradigm shift is underway. The conversation about disability and employment is expanding, and older workers are an important part of the discussion.
Just think about it: Until recently, when someone said, “employee with a disability,” most people probably thought about someone like me — someone born with a disability or with an apparent (and probably physical) disability. But as the workforce ages, so does the image of disability employment. I’d argue that this expanded view offers a real opportunity for America’s employers and employees to rethink what it means to be an inclusive organization.
These so called “older workers” may not realize that disability policies apply to them, but they know that they need or want to work. They may not have heard the term “accommodation,” but they know what tools they need to do their jobs. Similarly, employers may not be consciously thinking about their disability employment responsibilities, but they’re probably using strategies — such as flexible work arrangements and accommodations — to help them retain valued workers and ensure they are productive. Such inclusive practices enhance corporate continuity efforts. What’s more, they foster innovation by adding diverse perspectives on how to confront business challenges and achieve success.
I find this all fascinating. This expanded, more inclusive model is helping reinforce the message that disability affects all of us, so all of us should care about disability employment issues. Age-related, acquired conditions are disabilities, the same way that my blindness is a disability. It’s not an “us-them” issue. It’s a “we” issue.
Today, an inclusive workplace means accommodating all employees when certain needs arise — not just those of us who were born with, or have obvious, evident disabilities, but also those who age into disability but want to continue to contribute. Doing so is good for people, and it’s good for business.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.