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The Importance of, and Strategies for, Encouraging Self-ID of Disability

by Kathy Martinez

Recently, I was pleased to participate in a Disability and Philanthropy Forum webinar focused on demographic tracking and self-identification of disability. And, whether by default or design, an important point was underscored before the main conversation even began.

Prior to diving into the discussion, my fellow panelist, Chai Feldblum, and I were asked to describe ourselves for accessibility purposes—a practice that I, as someone who is blind, greatly appreciate. The session moderators did the same. While we all described our physical attributes like hair color and clothes we were wearing, we also naturally ended up sharing a little bit about who we actually are—our identities.

For me, my disability is a key part of my identity, and over the course of my career, I believe it—like my other life experiences—has benefitted the organizations I’ve worked for by expanding the diversity of perspectives at the table. Today, smart organizations recognize this and are taking steps to bring qualified people with disabilities on board. I believe we’re at an amazing nexus point around diversity, equity, and inclusion—one that offers an opportunity to ensure related efforts are, in fact, fully inclusive and take into account that disability is an identity that cuts across all other identities.

Philanthropies have an important role to play in strengthening this momentum by championing disability inclusion, not only in resource allocation but also within their own staff and leadership. Key to this is collecting data by inviting employees, board members and grantees to self-identify as having a disability and analyzing that data to identify gaps in representation. This is a central point that Chai addresses quite eloquently in her blog post, “Moving the Needle on Employing People with Disabilities.” But key to doing that is fostering an organizational culture that actually encourages people to self-identify.

Many organizations—whether private, public, or philanthropic—have used a variety of strategies to do this, and they all map back to the environment. We need to create workplace cultures in which people feel safe to self-identify and understand how such demographic data helps their organization. This can be especially relevant to people with non-apparent disabilities. As a person who was born blind, I have never been able to “hide” my disability, but others, such as people with mental health conditions or chronic illnesses, can and often do, for fear of stigma and discrimination.

Disability-related employee resource groups (ERGs) are one clear example of a best practice that can counter such reluctance to self-identify. In fact, research shows that ERGs have a real impact on workplace culture. They enable organizations to solicit organized feedback from employees while clearly communicating a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. They also contribute to increased employee satisfaction and productivity and reduced turnover. Furthermore, employees who participate in ERGs report numerous personal benefits, and companies with them are often rated as best places to work, which certainly says a lot about their value.

Some organizations also conduct internal awareness campaigns to encourage self-identification—for instance, through internal communications, the onboarding process and ongoing training. In support of this, it really helps to have leaders talk about their connections to disability, whether through their own personal experiences or those of their family members or friends. Such a message, for example in an email memo or video, can go a long way toward communicating that disability is a natural part of the human condition—and thus a natural part of the workforce. 

This helps brand an organization as inclusive. We often think about branding only in the external context, but it’s also internal. It’s about what staff and board members—and potential staff and board members—find when they enter your workplace, whether in-person or virtually. There’s the physical access side of things. Can they enter the building? Do they find an accessible technology infrastructure? Then, there’s the culture. Do they see people with disabilities at all levels? Does disability-related messaging incorporate multiple employees’ perspectives? During onboarding, are they informed how to request reasonable accommodations? Is there a centralized accommodation fund? Is there a disability ERG?

Such actions send a powerful message. They illustrate that an organization expects and assumes it has people with disabilities in its workforce. The same is true of asking about disability, if done correctly. It is important to note that inviting employees to voluntarily self-identify as having a disability is permissible, but only when being asked for affirmative action purposes, such as those prescribed by Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act or a voluntarily adopted program designed to bring more people with disabilities into the workplace.

For anyone unfamiliar, Section 503 requires employers—whether for-profit or not-for-profit—who have federal contracts and meet certain criteria to take proactive steps to recruit and retain qualified people with disabilities. As Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy from 2009 to 2015, I was pleased to play a role in updating Section 503, and when I left, it was gratifying to see my new employer, Wells Fargo, working to meet its goals under the regulation. This included actively working to foster a culture of inclusion through a community of practice for hiring managers, a disability ERG, improvements in our accommodation processes, and having multiple spokespeople willing to talk openly about disability. Indeed, the most important thing was simply starting the conversation.

I’m pleased that the Disability & Philanthropy Forum is helping elevate this important conversation in the philanthropic arena and honored to be one of the voices contributing. Delivering on a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion starts with talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion—and disability is a key part of the equation.

Kathy Martinez, an internationally recognized disability rights leader, joined Disability Rights Advocates as President/CEO in March 2021 after having spent six years as SVP, Head of Disability and Accessibility Strategy for Wells Fargo. While with Wells Fargo, Kathy helped to weave disability into the overall diversity agenda to expand the bank’s capabilities and programs to better serve both employees and customers with disabilities. Previously, she served as Assistant Secretary of The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) at the U.S. Department of Labor. Martinez led ODEP in putting policy priorities into practice through several innovative grant programs. These include Add Us In, through which a nationwide consortia worked to increase the capacity of small businesses to employ people with disabilities. The grant program also included the Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program, through which several states received support to promote community-based, integrated employment as the primary outcome for people with significant disabilities. She is currently serving on the board of The American Association of People with Disabilities and has served on the boards of The National Council on Disability, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the State Department’s advisory committee on disability and foreign policy. A graduate of San Francisco State University, Martinez speaks and publishes on a wide array of topics related to disability employment, including the emergence of disability as an essential component of workplace diversity and inclusion and the importance of expectation in ensuring youth with disabilities grow up with an assumption of work—a topic on which Martinez, who herself was born blind, offers compelling and personal perspective.