I will always remember my father’s words as a child. He taught me that given my disability, I’ll walk into a room and people will make assumptions. He told me that I’d need to show them that those assumptions are wrong. To do this, I’d have to work harder, be faster and be smarter. I listened. Today I am a Managing Director at Blackrock and a senior member of Blackrock’s Global Investment Operations team. I have been a financial services professional for the past 30 years, I have an MBA and I am a CPA. I have two incredible children that I am extremely proud of. I also have cerebral palsy.
Everyone is born with gifts to bring the world and everyone deserves to work; deserves a chance to prove oneself. October marks the annual celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This month is a chance to celebrate job seekers with disabilities who are striving to work and employers who are recruiting talented employees with disabilities. The theme for NDEAM 2019 is “The Right Talent, Right Now.” Indeed, employment matters for people with disabilities for more than just financial reasons. Employment matters because people with disabilities are seeking the opportunity to achieve independence, just like anyone else. We also want to fulfill our dreams, we want to get married, we want to have families and we have the same aspirations as those without disabilities.
Celebrating NDEAM this year should be a call to action for the great state of New York. The Empire State has a disability employment rate of only 34.5 percent. The good news is that last year, there were nearly 11,500 new jobs for New Yorkers with disabilities. This was thanks to the hard work of Victor Calise, the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and many others. Nearly half of all working-age New Yorkers with disabilities live in the five boroughs. In total, there are 455,000 working-age people with disclosed disabilities living in the City.
Some states have deliberate strategies implemented by leaders in the community, in government and in the school system that place a priority on “Employment First”. This is a strategy where critical social programs are oriented toward ensuring that getting a job is the top priority for individuals with disabilities. That goal is reinforced with high expectations among the teachers, coaches and parents around that individual.
New York can further capitalize on past successes by following the example of states that show constant improvement such as Florida and Ohio. Both can attribute a portion of their growth in disability employment to Project SEARCH, a program for young adults with disabilities to improve their skills, learn from job coaches and ultimately find a job. Data shows that 70 percent of SEARCH interns who complete their training obtain competitive employment. New York has some highly successful Project SEARCH sites – but many more are needed. By expanding such critical programs, New York can increase the number of people with disabilities entering the workforce.
Everyone has things that they excel at and things that are more challenging. For those with disabilities the challenges are more obvious. Hence the need to focus on what they are good at to be successful. Companies that embrace employees with disabilities clearly see the results in their bottom line. According to Accenture, disability-inclusive companies have higher productivity levels and lower staff turnover rates, are twice as likely to outperform their peers in shareholder returns and create larger returns on investment.
The fact is that disability is part of the human experience. It is nothing to fear because most of us will be affected by it eventually, whether by accident, aging or illness. Diverse teams make better decisions. People with disabilities often excel in social and emotional competence skills – people management, coordination /collaboration with others, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision making, service orientation and negotiation. Opening more job opportunities to people with disabilities will mean stronger communities and a better economy for all. Achieving that requires all of us working together because people with disabilities are the right talent, right now.
Ila Eckhoff resides in New York City, and is a Managing Director at Blackrock. She currently serves on the boards of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and RespectAbility – a national, nonpartisan nonprofit that fights stigmas and advances opportunities so that people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of community.