Shifting Our Lens on the Differently Abled

When I first heard John Sharon, director of the academic program at The Fenn School (MA) and NAIS summer institute faculty member, speak at NAIS’s Diversity Leadership Institute a few years ago, I was shocked by the employment statistics he shared about people living with disabilities. Although I assumed that the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 would have increased the employment of differently abled adults, the numbers instead showed a steady decline. Of those working, the median income has remained stagnant for decades. Other government initiatives have not spurred much improvement. Today, only 13% of U.S. companies have reached the Department of Labor’s suggested target of having those with a disability make up 7% of their workforce.

To give context to those numbers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2019, 61 million Americans (26%) live with some physical or mental disability. These numbers include children and retired persons, but among the 61 million, there are many of working age.  According to the private nonprofit National Organization on Disability (NOD), in 2018, the unemployment rate for those with a disability was more than twice the rate of those without—hard to understand given the low unemployment rates today.

The “Look Closer” Campaign

What keeps employers from hiring the differently abled? In a March 2019 Campaign for Disability Employment blog, Carol Glazer, president of NOD, writes about the misconceptions regarding what people with disabilities can and cannot do. To try to change those attitudes, NOD launched the “Look Closer” campaign. The goal of the campaign is to reach employers and shift the way they view disability and, particularly, educate them about how the skills that so many differently abled people bring to the table align with those most valued in the 21st century—problem-solving and overcoming obstacles, for example.

As part of the campaign, NOD has made available resources that can help any employer, including independent schools, take advantage of this incredible talent pool. The Disability Employment Tracker is a free service that can benchmark schools’ performance in areas such as climate and culture, talent sourcing, people practices, workplace and technology, and strategy and metrics. Once completed, a school can move on to the Disability Inclusion Accelerator to chart a plan to progress further, including short-, medium- and long-term actions to advance inclusion initiatives, and a playbook to gain internal buy-in.

What Independent Schools Can Do

To further understand why independent schools may be overlooking and underserving adults and children with disabilities, I interviewed John Sharon. John, who has lived with a disability since birth, commented that the differently abled are mostly invisible in our culture, despite the ADA. When he addresses school groups, he speaks about the disability dilemma: We know that we are supposed to focus on the person, not the disability, but, if we ignore the disability, we also ignore the person. As humans, John said, “We don’t like to think about our limitations. The mind fills in the gaps with fear.” We need to change that lens from fear to opportunity.

John commented that, in his experience, students and adults with disabilities tend not to be on the radar of diversity efforts, saying, “It is just a blind spot for many schools.” And, if it’s not part of the school’s diversity agenda, then chances are, there is no formal strategic approach to improve access and support for those with disabilities. He said that he dreams that independent schools will move from a reactive to a proactive approach; we do ourselves a great disservice if we don’t. He reminds us that education is an excellent vehicle for culture change. Who better than independent schools to move the needle on inclusion of the differently abled?

John noted that he has seen some progress on the academic front and highlighted the work at The Derryfield School (NH), where there is now an entire unit in the English curriculum on disability. McLean School (MD) recently rolled out its “Abilities Model®," describing it this way:
“Schools should teach the way students learn. McLean’s Abilities Model® has helped hundreds of students—both conventional learners and those with learning challenges ranging from dyslexia, anxiety, and ADHD, to difficulties with executive functioning—to succeed at school and in life. By focusing on each child’s strengths, supporting in areas of individual challenge, and fostering resilience, we are transforming how our students view themselves and their prospects.”
John and I also spent some time talking about what the new economy will demand of students, and he suggested that schools should begin looking at disability through the lens of cultural competence, one of the most sought-after skills today. For example, one of the first stages of cultural competence is being aware of your individual biases and reactions to people who are of a culture or background significantly different from your own. Viewing disability through that lens begins to open peoples’ minds and encourages our students to treat others with empathy.

With so many schools pressed financially, I asked John if he thought finances impeded enrolling more students with disabilities in independent schools. He agreed that money has been a barrier, but he believes that too many schools wrongly think that accessibility means money, which is a limited horizon. Many accommodations require little or no funding and, for more expensive changes, there are government funds—IRS Section 44 of the Internal Revenue Code grants eligible small businesses an annual tax credit of up to $5,000 for expenditures incurred "to comply with applicable requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990,” while IRS Section 190 allows a deduction up to $15,000 per year for “qualified architectural and transportation barrier removal expenses.”

Of course, independent schools must comply with the law in serving both adults and students with disabilities. Specifically, Titles I and III of the ADA apply to independent schools: Title I to employer-employee issues and Title III to student and other public accommodation issues (except for religious schools). The aspiration for independent schools, however, as they seek to become more inclusive, is that the law will be the floor, not the ceiling. John rightfully pointed out that NAIS could and should be doing more from collecting data to developing resources. He has opened my eyes to the possibilities.

John urges all independent school leaders to ask these questions:
  • What can you do to make disability a more integrated part of your DEI efforts?
  • How do you need to grow in your understanding of the disability experience?
  • How is your school uniquely gifted (campus, culture, mission, etc.) to be a welcoming place for students and adults with disabilities? What needs to change? Where do you need to put your brave on?
Let’s remove the cloak of invisibility and be leaders in ensuring that those living with disabilities are included and flourish at our schools. Everyone in the community will benefit as a result.

For more information on what schools should know about the Americans with Disabilities Act and supporting students and adults with disabilities, read NAIS's Legal Tip of the Week: Understand the Difference Between a “Service” and “Support” Animal.
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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.