Making “Inclusion”​ More Than A Buzzword: The Truth About Disabled Employees, Poverty & Social Justice

The term ‘inclusion’ is frequently used and has become a buzzword to represent promotion of diverse workforces, but in practice the term ‘inclusion’ simply renounces unlawful discrimination. Sometimes inclusion is applied as an effort to seek underserved communities for hiring considerations and to adopt HR policies that penalize unlawful workplace behavior. Application of inclusion has been more than not, an employer cost/benefit analysis – the cost of added policies or additional recruiting efforts vs. not seeming diverse.

Fact is genuine inclusion isn’t a labor theory developed to benefit the employer, though the employer undoubtedly benefits from it. The true focus of inclusion is developing equity and justice where economic opportunity is not only preached, but also practiced.

As I have discovered in my outreach efforts and research, inclusion as it relates to people with disabilities is nearly non-existent where both unlawful and latent discrimination are practiced regularly.

What is Exclusion?

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act holds that an employer with 15 or more employees cannot overlook, fail to advance or dismiss an otherwise qualified person based on disability. As federal law, this is the baseline of expectations for how people are treated in the workforce. Failing to abide by the aforementioned is literally a crime, yet in spite of our country’s incredible diversity we continue to see people with disabilities chronically under-represented in the workforce.

Defining Exclusion

Level One of Exclusion is a conscious choice to exclude people with disabilities from employment and/or to consciously harass someone or disregard a reasonable accommodation.

The ADA requires “reasonable” accommodations, but is extremely lenient with employers about what defines “reasonable”. Providing a chair for someone with a spinal condition, but refusing a flexible schedule for someone with a cognitive disorder are examples of the fine line between what is clearly required and what an employer can argue as too inconvenient. The distinction between ‘criminal’ and ‘inflexible’ can be legally nuanced, yet both are extreme forms of exclusion.

It is not uncommon for employers in both private and public sectors to extol the virtue of diversity while also stating they only hire people who can meet ALL the criteria of a job position. This practice doesn’t meet the federal standard to provide reasonable accommodations, no less the standard for promoting genuine inclusion.

Level Two of Exclusion applies to employers who are willing to hire people with disabilities without refusing basic accommodations, but fails to provide additional accommodations that support full workplace participation. This may include enhanced flexible schedules, task modifications, and pairing/support assistance. Absent creating a position with a disabled employee specifically in mind, employers are unlikely to hire and retain employees with disabilities without offering some enhanced levels of support. Consider Level 2 “circumstantial exclusion”. It may not come from a place of hostility, but it overlooks disabled employees’ diverse skills/value, and fundamentally withholds economic opportunity from people who need and want to work.

Full Accommodations Reflect Genuine Inclusion

Willingness to hire someone with a disability is what the law requires. Willingness to offer enhanced accommodations means investment in real inclusion. Statistics show that people with disabilities are already members of other underserved communities.

  1. 25% and 30% of African Americans and Native Americans respectively have disabilities compared to 20% of white adults
  2. Women comprise 53% of the disabled population.
  3. 20.9% of people with disabilities live below the poverty line compared to 13.2% of those without disabilities
  4. 60.5% of Multnomah County’s homeless population is disabled
  5. In the US, 35.9% of people with disabilities are employed compared to 76.6% of non-disabled residents.

People with cognitive disabilities include intellectual and/or developmental impairments. In Oregon:

  1. 34.7% of “people with cognitive disabilities” (PWCD) live below the poverty line. Oregon’s average rate of poverty for the state population is 13.1%, and the US average for PWCD is 31.5%. Oregon is #10 in highest poverty rate for residents with intellectual/developmental disabilities.
  2. Employment for PWCD is 13.8% compared to the national average of 14.1% making Oregon #35 in employment for residents with intellectual/developmental disabilities.
  3. 9% of PWCD who are actively seeking work are not employed compared to the national average of 8%. Oregon ranks #33 in hiring interested candidates with intellectual/developmental disabilities.
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Benefits of Employing People with Disabilities

The reality is that employers who hire people with disabilities are not sacrificing much by providing holistic inclusion/accommodations. Employers often fear the cost to accommodate, manageability, and need for workers to meet specific criteria without taking into consideration benefits, such as higher rates of worker attendance and productivity, worker loyalty and dedication without risk of high worker turnover.

The other benefit is belonging to a community where vulnerable people aren’t relegated to living in poverty simply because hiring them requires modifications to a job.


Organizations exist to facilitate inclusion. Abilities at Work not only helps employers diversify their workforce, they provide FREE facilitation, hands-on training, and continued skill development for hired employees.

A job development specialist matches interested candidates with positions and provides on-site mentorship and vocational training until the employee has been fully integrated into the job. AAW remains a resource and arbiter for the employer (a benefit exclusive to hiring disabled applicants) and the employer becomes part of a community that faithfully and holistically implements diversity and inclusion in the workplace.


In short, hiring someone with a disability isn’t about being nice or doing a favor. Hiring someone with an intellectual/developmental disability is about social justice and a real investment in inclusion that addresses our overburdened welfare system, poverty rates, economic disparity, and social exclusion for a vulnerable, yet eager population. Organizations that provide job facilitation for people with disabilities perform a profound public service that improves the workforce.

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