OLD SCHOOL: People with disabilities are institutionalized and written off. NEW SCHOOL: People with disabilities are recognized as untapped talent and hired by forward-thinking employers. In this, Part I of a two part interview, Assistant Labor Secretary Neil Romano talks to ABILITY Magazine about the coming revolution in the American workforce:
People with disabilities are the next great wave of diversity in the United States, and they are about to move forward. The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) has been talking about that, and I think it’s starting to get some traction. Companies are beginning to realize that people with disabilities have a lot to offer, and it’s time that they take a good, long look at how to hire them, which makes perfect sense to me.
I never assign malevolence to anything that I’ve seen that’s been wrong in the arena of disability. I think sometimes that people try to build this hedge of protection around people who have disabilities, and sometimes it can be so tall that it becomes a form of imprisonment. Perhaps they just don’t believe in people with disabilities.
Sometimes that hits close to home. Here I am, 54 years old, and when I get the call from the White House that I’m going to be nominated for this job, I phone my 84-yearold mother in Brooklyn and say, “Mom, the President has asked me to be the next assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.” She gets real quiet, and whispers, “Neil, does he know that you can’t spell?” Which to me was hysterical. It said everything that I was trying to illustrate, and everything that I’m about. People have tended historically to look at disability as the opposite of ability. We focus so much on what people can’t do that we don’t focus on what they can do. Now we’re going after businesses and saying, “You know what? Actually, this group can do a great deal.” So we’ve started to turn the corner on that, and we’re working very hard.
Things have changed dramatically in the last 20 years. People with disabilities are now better educated, and expect more from their educations. They’re saying, “We want to work more.” America is at a very good point in history, because companies need more skilled workers and people with disabilities now have better education, better preparedness and higher expectations. These factors converging are good for people with disabilities and good for the country.
Technology is part of it: It gives us the opportunity to have computers and systems that can level the playing field. I tell people all the time that I owned a company where, for years, I had people do my typing because of my dyslexia. I had people read and answer my email for me, because my greatest fear was that I would be perceived as someone who wasn’t smart. My life changed the day that I discovered spell check. When I sold my business and started working independently, I could sit and write without fear of how people would perceive my written business materials.
At the time, I did cause-oriented marketing for both companies and government. The assignments were health-care related. I’d always had a tremendous desire to get into the whole issue of employment for people with disabilities. It was partly because, for many years, I never got a job that I applied for. If I went out for a PR position 25 or 30 years ago, the first thing they would do is sit me down in front of an IBM Selectric typewriter and say, “Take this test.” When you have dyslexia, that’s probably the scariest thing, second only to being asked to read in public. So there I was, passionate about public relations and marketing, but incapable of taking the test that I needed to get into the field.
FROM DYSLEXIC TO ENTREPRENEUR
So essentially what happened is that I spent the better part of my life either getting jobs that I was recommended for, or jobs that I didn’t have to take a test for. Finally, I got into marketing and public relations by starting my own company. A lot of people with dyslexia in America become entrepreneurs for that very same reason. We can do things; we just have to figure out how to make up for the things we can’t do. Generally, how we do that is we start a business and hire other people to do those things.
I had a meeting with a CEO of a major corporation about a year ago. I went up to this guy’s company, and he rolled out the red carpet for me. He put out a little “Welcome Neil Romano” sign in the front of the lobby and invited lots of people. When I got back home, I wrote an email to this guy, which I thought ended with “Thank you for the warm reception.” I get an email back almost immediately that says, “Worm?” to which I responded, “Yes, worm!” I had no idea what was going on, until my wife read my email and says, “You thanked the gentleman for a worm reception!” (laughs) So I then had to write him a note and say, “Sorry, my spell check didn’t catch that one!”
I remember sitting in the New York City public library for days, sending out hundreds of resumes, finding out that I had made thousands of spelling errors on them, and not getting the job. It’s the kind of thing that can make you beat yourself up. But I got an invaluable lesson from my daughter, who is 16 now, and wanted to bring home a friend. I think she was only eight or nine at the time. So we said, “Sure, bring your friend home.” She had been talking about this girl for some time. They played outside, they played on the monkey bars, they ate together. Finally this child comes over for a visit, and she has cerebral palsy, rather serious CP. When the little girl left, I turned to my daughter at dinner and casually said, “You didn’t mention that she has CP.”
And my daughter looked at me as if to say, Why should I mention that? I couldn’t help but think, Boy, is that the right attitude. I felt something burn right through my soul at that moment.
I just related that story again recently, and when the person wanted to write about it, I suggested they talk to my daughter, but she absolutely did not want to expose her friend to that at all. She said, “I don’t even want to have that conversation, Dad.” They’re still best friends today. It’s just one of those things. The experience is terribly powerful for me about how kids think as children, and how that often changes when they get to be adults.
When you see a person with a disability standing next to you, doing the same job that you’re doing, that person suddenly doesn’t seem disabled. They’re just the person next to you doing the work. I did a survey with my foundation a number of years ago, which showed that somewhere near 80 percent of everyone who’s ever worked with a person with a disability, said they performed as well or better than anyone else.
Then there’s the whole issue of people saying that people with disabilities on the job no longer have a disability. But if Bob is blind and is accommodated at work, and then he can’t use public transportation on the way home, he suddenly becomes blind again. If he’s in a wheelchair and there’s no curb cut, then he is at a disadvantage and has a disability. That’s why I always say that work is the engine of social change, because if I work next to Bob, I think, Why shouldn’t there be curb cuts? He’s got to get to work. I want him there to help me get the work done. And then after work, he needs to get home to his family without encountering obstacles.
A CEO said to me recently, “Before I started hiring people with disabilities, I’d see someone on the bus who was visually impaired or someone with CP and think, Poor guy, poor gal. Bad hand, bad deal. Now I see a person with a disability and all I think is, Gee, I wonder where that person works? I wonder what kind of job they have? It dawned on him that his view had changed because he saw people working. And you see the potential for events to cascade from that. I mean, if a person can work and wants to work, then that person should be educated properly and have adequate transportation— the same transportation that I get. That person should have the same opportunity for housing. All those things suddenly become obvious.
‘WHAT DO YOU DO?’
For instance, if I go to the school board meeting and we’re talking about more money for special education classes, and I have a guy who’s working with me, and I know that special ed would help people like him get a job, suddenly that’s not something that I consider unnecessary any more. His education is as important as anybody else’s. But if I’m walking around oblivious, and I don’t believe that people with disabilities can work, then I don’t understand why they need anything. That’s why I focus so hard on work and work preparedness. Because in America the second thing that we ask each other, after our names, is ‘What do you do?’
Work is essential to the fabric of a human being. It gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of purpose, to take care of ourselves, to take care of loved ones. It gives us the opportunity for independence. Finding work is essential to the healing process; in a lot of cases, it helps people get stronger. You find that people with disabilities who work tend to get a little bit better.
I have a brother who is a Vietnam veteran and a quadriplegic. He has a wonderful wife and a great family. He says to me all the time, “Neil, I have no regrets about my life. I have no regrets about my service. But I will tell you, I wish I had a job. I wish I felt productive.” He says the worst days are when he’s in a room and hears everybody introducing each other, and they ask your name and then they say, ‘What do you do?’ “No one ever asks me what I do,” my brother says. “They make an assumption that I don’t do anything, because I have a disability.” That’s the most painful thing he goes through. He’s one of those people who’s struggled to get work throughout his whole life.
You feel good about yourself when you feel good about your work. The way we show love is by being able to do for others. You can say you love someone, but not until you do for them does it register. When I bring my wife flowers, do something nice for her, contribute to her as a human being, she knows how I really feel about her. It’s taking it a step past emotional love; work does that for us. It gives us the opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves. It takes us out of ourselves, commits us to others, as well as to bigger ideals. What else is there, really?
NEW PROGRAM FOR PTSD
We recently announced a program out of ODEP called America’s Heroes at Work. We’re very, very excited about it. The program addresses Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and traumatic brain injury for veterans returning home. About one in five veterans returning home is going to have one of these issues. That’s somewhere around 200,000 men and women. Fortunately, about 80 percent of those injuries can be reasonably mitigated in a short period of time, if employers know about it, and if they understand the problems and symptoms.
So we have developed what I consider to be an excellent website that helps employers understand what the problems are, how to address them, and simple things that could be done to alleviate them. It’s a great program because we got as much good information on this as we could by working in conjunction with the Veteran’s Training Administration, the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Veterans Administration.
The website can help you retain a great employee who may be going through a difficult time. Within a year to 13 months, you will have an eight in 10 chance that that employee’s situation will be better. Once again, going back to my own brother’s time, when these fellows came back from Vietnam, we didn’t know what was wrong with some of them. My brother had scads of jobs in his first year, he just couldn’t hold them. Now we know much more about PTSD, and its symptoms: losing one’s balance, headaches, problems with loud noises.
If employers knew that back then, and there was a source of information comparable to this website, my brother probably would have been able to maintain a job. He later had other things that eventually affected his health, but there would have been a period of time when he was physically able to have worked for while, though I think he is still may be able.
One thing that I’m most pleased about in having the opportunity to work on this with ODEP and vets, is that we’re addressing an area that a lot of people are afraid to take on. Any time you go into anything dealing with the mind, it’s more difficult for people to understand. There’s fear and concern, even though there shouldn’t be, because those are things that can be taken care of.
This program obviously relates to veterans, but there are employers and employees such as first responders— police, fire, EMS—who grapple with PTSD every day. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me from those communities and said, “We’re so glad somebody has stepped up and talked about this issue.” Because when you have a firefighter or a policeman who sees something really tragic, trust me, they have these problems. They may be overlooked, but this website gives them a resource. We’ve already reached out to some of those organizations, and they’re very excited about this resource.
DON’T CALL IT ACCOMMODATION
If you have dyslexia like I do, you know that fluorescent lights are not your friend. I can see them flash. People with PTSD and some forms of traumatic brain disorder have the same problem. It makes them incapable of concentrating. We know that you can turn the fluorescents off, put in some incandescent lighting, and get rid of a lot of that right off the bat. If you have a person who has PTSD and they’re having a problem concentrating, put them in an area of the office that’s a little quieter. This doesn’t require a big fix.
I have to tell you, though, I don’t like the word accommodation. It sounds like doing someone a favor. If someone walks into my office who doesn’t have a quote “disability” and says, “You know, I don’t use a Mac. I use a PC,” and I have to get him a PC and pay $3,000 for that, that could be considered an accommodation. But if my job is to make sure that everyone is given an opportunity to do their best, that’s not an accommodation. And if I have to lift up an employee’s desk, change the light bulbs, or otherwise make the office accessible, that is nothing more than productivity enhancement. So from my point of view, a good businessman is going to give you the tools and the environment to do your job.
America has grown every time we’ve allowed another diverse group to be fully incorporated into society. It seems like every couple of generations or so we manage to let in another group of marginalized Americans. My goodness, what takes us so long? At a recent conference, I said to attendees: “When you think of how you would incorporate people with disabilities, I want you to stop for a moment and remove all the people from your office who, at one time or another, were considered, ‘unhireable.’ Start with women, move on to African Americans, don’t forget the turn of the century when all those Italians and Irish came, and we told them not to apply. And then let’s move onto Hispanics… After you take all those people away, you know what you’ll have? An empty office. Where would we be without those Americans today? From my point of view, people with disabilities are that next great wave.