By Jason Regier, ExecOnline Coach
Americans with disabilities remain the largest underemployed and underrepresented group in the country. It’s estimated that 1 in 4 adult Americans — 61 million people — live with a disability, and experience unemployment rates nearly double that of the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People with disabilities are dramatically underrepresented in the workplace, and for National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I want to shed light on some of the barriers to workplace equity that persist — and what true equity could look like for workers with disabilities.
My name is Jason Regier and I live in Littleton, Colorado, right outside of Denver. I am a leadership coach with ExecOnline and a Head Coach for the Paralympic Parasport Denmark Wheelchair Rugby Team. As I write this, I just passed the 27-year mark of my spinal cord injury.
At the beginning of fall in 1996, I was driving back from Denver for my senior year at Oregon State. Outside Salt Lake City on the long rolling hills in Utah, I reach down to change the radio station. In that split instant, the front wheel of my Jeep went off the road, hitting the shoulder of the road that was raised up for highway construction. I tried to regain control, but my Jeep veered into the median, rolling it side-over-side at 75 miles per hour.
As a result of the catastrophic accident, I was a C5-6 tetraplegic with partial use of my arms and paralyzed completely from the upper mid chest down, and my life as I had known it was changed forever. I remember contemplating job offers back in Denver as well as in Oregon, and fearing all of those career aspirations had taken the offramp.
Despite my fears following the accident, I graduated on time with my class in the spring of 1997 and went into corporate training and human resources at Teletech, where I spent 3 1/2 years. I then went back to school and earned an MBA and MS in marketing. Since that time, I’ve made steady strides in a career I’m passionate about, but have also encountered myriad workplace challenges that many people with disabilities face.
Understanding Workplace Equity
There are physical hurdles and mental barriers that go along with living with a disability. Some barriers are obvious, like stairs to get into a building if you use a wheelchair. But most barriers are not so obvious. Navigating insurance and health care when you live with a disability can feel like a part-time job in itself. Many of you in the workforce may have experienced a small portion of this, possibly navigating healthcare systems and insurance for a parent or loved one.
Other invisible barriers are mental and emotional. What happens when you have a catastrophic injury–even if you don’t suffer any brain damage, which I did not–is that you also suffer a mental injury. The toll taken on your self-perception, confidence, and self-esteem requires a lot of time and thought to recover and get back to the life you led before. There is interesting research on lottery winners and individuals that suffer a spinal cord injury. The study found that, six months after their win or injury, both groups returned to a similar level of happiness they had before the life-changing event. This is encouraging evidence of mental and emotional resilience. But as a peer mentor working with other people with spinal cord injuries, I would share that the mental challenge can be as daunting as the physical challenge when adjusting to life with a disability.
Equality in the workplace has gotten much better since the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Do you need a desk that accommodates a wheelchair? Check. Do you need a computer with voice-activated software? Check. Do you have access to the building? Check. That was all I thought I needed for my first job after my injury.
Even with the progress the Americans with Disabilities Act made toward equality for people with disabilities, we have along way to go when it comes to workplace equity, that is, accommodating the unique needs of each individual to ensure that have equal opportunity to succeed.
However, with continued growth and focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, I have developed a better understanding about equity. Even with the progress the ADA made toward equality for people with disabilities, we have a long way to go when it comes to workplace equity — that is, fully accommodating the unique needs of each individual to ensure they have equal opportunity to succeed.
Insurance doesn’t work for me or cover my needs: unchecked. Physical limitations (however, hybrid work from home can be amazing) and energy are never addressed: unchecked. Insurance, government programs, disability programs, and education are all left up to the individual to navigate: massive unchecked. All of these unaddressed barriers make performing effectively at work more difficult for people living with disabilities.
There are amazing people that understand programs for people with disabilities, and do amazing work to help each individual in their unique situation. However, do not underestimate the mountain of a project it is to get the information and resources you need just to roll through the front door towards employment.
One of my jobs is as Head Coach for Parasport Denmark Wheelchair Rugby Team. I have done this for the past six years, coaching their national team at the highest level. I have players that I coach that are the exact same level of my injury. In the Danish system, they have been able to work full time right out of school. They work 26 hours per week and get paid for 40 (energy and effort equity). They can have an assistant 24 hours per day, as compared to three or four hours per day in the United States. The extra help means they don’t use energy on tasks that can be physically and mentally taxing, which gives them room to work and be effective at their job. In Denmark, one’s physical injury or limitation is viewed as the basis for their disability, and accommodated accordingly. In the U.S., one’s disability is based on their capacity to earn money, with too little regard paid to one’s unique needs.
Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely blessed to live in the U.S. at this time with all its societal and technological advances. I have been fortunate to travel around the world when I represented the United States Paralympic Rugby Team for 12 years. I have seen and learned from how other countries and cultures treat people with disabilities. I am privileged to live where I do with the disability I have, but I recognize the opportunities for us, as a society, to do better.
Maybe it’s time to pave the shoulder of the onramp that leads to the interstate of employment for people with a disability. We have come so far, and with widespread awareness about the realities of living and working with a disability, we can address not only the physical challenges but those invisible barriers that really hold people back.
About the Author
Jason Regier is an ExecOnline Leadership Coach who enjoys working with clients who are emerging to senior leaders developing their influence and leadership style, and roadmaps for meaningful career and personal development. He began his career in management development, HR corporate leadership program training, and HR and operations training for Teletech. As an elite athlete, he has been a consultant and speaker. Jason represented Team USA in wheelchair rugby for 12 years. He is currently Head Coach for the ParaSport Denmark Wheelchair Rugby Team. He led Denmark to world championships 2018 in Australia (2018) and their first Paralympic games in Tokyo (2020-2021).