ODEP at 20: Driving Change Through NDEAM

America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion. National Disability Employment Awareness Month. On a red background, a tan outline of the United States, with a diverse collection of people lining the edges of the outline.

Several weeks ago, I was confirmed as assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy, an honor that has placed me at the helm of a place I know and love, the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. I was fortunate to call ODEP home for a significant portion of my earlier career, and returning during the agency’s 20th anniversary year is especially gratifying.

Like our nation at large, ODEP is at a historic crossroads, and it’s with this in mind that I’ve been extensively exploring our work. We cover a wide range of issues, from employer policy to youth transition to accessible technology, to name just a few. We’ve also been responsive to new issues as they arise, including those created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking ahead, we know we must also do more to ensure our work to promote disability inclusion is, in fact, fully inclusive and equitable. To this end, we are closely examining our policy and programmatic efforts to ensure they meet the needs of all people with disabilities, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.   

As diverse and far-reaching as our work is, the thread tying it all together is the ever-important goal of changing attitudes and behavior. National Disability Employment Awareness Month, held each October, is an annual reaffirmation of this common goal, and this year’s theme – America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion – speaks to the critical role Americans with disabilities, from all backgrounds, play in our economic success. Indeed, our economic recovery will be driven by resourcefulness and resilience, attributes often strengthened by virtue of experience with disability.

ODEP leads NDEAM at the national level while also supporting and encouraging individuals and organizations across the country to celebrate locally. And celebrate they do! Every year, we are wowed by the many creative ways people channel the spirit of NDEAM into their own activities, which have included everything from a small business hosting a staff lunch-and-learn about disability employment to a major television network framing their October programming around the issue.

Whether large or small, NDEAM activities help highlight the value and talent people with disabilities add to America’s workplaces and economy, a goal that is shared by the Campaign for Disability Employment, which extends the month’s spirit throughout the year. The CDE started in 2009, when ODEP charged a group of leading disability and business organizations to spread positive media messages about the value and talent that people with disabilities bring to America’s workplaces. The result was an integrated public education initiative centered on a series of award-winning television and radio PSAs. These PSAs, which have now aired more than 450,000 times on television and radio stations nationwide, can all be accessed on the CDE website, along with other tools and ideas for supporting the campaign.

The CDE’s core message - that at work, it’s what people CAN do that matters - captures the essence of ODEP’s efforts to challenge misconceptions about and highlight the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities. NDEAM, the CDE and our other awareness-building activities are important complements to ODEP’s policy work, helping illustrate, through positive imagery and stories, the importance of our work to advance disability equity and inclusion, every day of every month.

Visit dol.gov/ndeam to join us in celebrating America’s workers with disabilities, and their critical goal in powering a complete and inclusive recovery.

Taryn M. Williams is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.