By Marielle Kriesel

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Approximately 1 million U.S. workers with disabilities have lost their jobs since the World Health Organization proclaimed the outbreak a pandemic in March, according to the New Hampshire University Institute on Disability. This means 1 out of 5 workers with disabilities have been dismissed from employment, compared with 1 out of 7 workers without disabilities according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 979 into law on Wednesday, September 30, compelling public corporations headquartered in California to appoint people from underrepresented racial, ethnic and LGBTQ+ communities to their boards of directors. It expands legislation signed by former Governor Jerry Brown in 2018 requiring women be appointed to corporate boards of directors. “When we talk about racial justice, we talk about empowerment, we talk about power and we need to talk about seats at the table,” Newsom said before signing the bill. When disability advocates talk about social justice however, their vision of social justice includes intersectional, cross-disability Californians at the table as well. This law is incomplete because intersectional, cross-disability Californians are not included at the table. Having a seat at the table is essential to providing meaningful professional opportunities for people with disabilities to advance workplace equity. It also advances the same social and economic justice goals being advanced with other unrepresented communities.

This year marks not only the 75th observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), but also the 30th anniversary of the ADA. Both milestones are acknowledged with the theme “Increasing Access and Opportunity.”

“People with disabilities are experienced problem solvers with a proven ability to adapt,” said Office of Disability Employment Policy Deputy Assistant Secretary, Jennifer Sheehy. “Now more than ever, flexibility is important for both workers and employers. National Disability Employment Awareness Month celebrates the ingenuity people with disabilities bring to America’s workplaces.”

Implicit biases that existed before the pandemic such as fears of expensive reasonable accommodations and low expectations eliminate people with disabilities from the workplace. People with disabilities should have the right in a free-market economy to build a career and contribute their talents and achievements to the workplace. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, persons with a disability were less likely to work in management, professional, and related occupations than those without a disability, 34.1%, compared with 41%. Amending AB 979 to include intersectional, cross-disability Californians at the corporate board of directors table increases access and opportunity to the workplace. Giving people with disabilities equitable access to work and the chance to succeed – that is empowerment!

Marielle Kriesel is a Systems Change Advocate and a Santa Monica Disabilities Commissioner