For the past five years, I have had the pleasure of managing the Office of Disability Employment Policy’s Add Us In initiative. Through this grant program, eight consortia across the country have received funds to establish plans that help small businesses increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities, especially those in underrepresented and historically excluded communities.
The need for this initiative is very clear. Despite being the nation’s major drivers of job growth, small businesses, including those owned and operated by minorities, employ people with disabilities at a much lower rate than large businesses.
Since the beginning, the Add Us In program has emphasized sustainability, and each Add Us In consortium has partnered with at least one business membership association, such as a chamber of commerce or business leadership network. Due in large part to the inclusion of these voices, the program has brought to light many innovative strategies that can be replicated by small businesses and business associations nationwide.
To build on their success, we have created a new resource to share these strategies so that small businesses in all communities can benefit from the lessons learned. Small Business & Disability Employment: Steps to Success is a Web-based tool that uses real-life examples to illustrate a range of exemplary disability inclusion practices in action. Reflecting Add Us In’s community-based, collaborative model, it also includes strategies that business associations can use to help their members understand the value that disability inclusion adds to their workplaces and communities.
Another way we’re working to support small businesses is through the Employer Assistance and Resource Network (known as EARN) – a resource for employers seeking to recruit, hire, retain and advance qualified employees with disabilities. EARN will host a webinar on Dec. 8 to talk about ways that small businesses can be more inclusive of people with disabilities.
There’s another compelling reason to be a disability-friendly employer. Last year, we updated the regulations used to implement Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act that have strengthened the requirements for federal contractors (and subcontractors) to take affirmative action to employ people with disabilities. So for small businesses that work with the government—or perhaps want to do business with government in the future—being disability inclusive may provide a competitive edge.
But there is a larger, more wide-reaching reason we need small businesses on board when it comes to inclusion. In addition to being sources of employment, small businesses are often an integral part of the social fabric of their communities. Even if they don’t always realize it, they have a strong influence on societal attitudes and norms, sometimes even more so than large businesses. By fostering a workplace inclusive of the skills and talents of people with disabilities, small businesses can make a big difference—and the Steps to Success provide a path.
Day Al-Mohamed is a senior policy adviser in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, where she focuses on youth issues.