Finding a job in this economy is an uphill climb for everyone, but it’s especially grueling for people with disabilities. As associate dean of outreach at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) school, and director of Cornell’s Employment and Disability Institute, professor Susanne Bruyère is working to ease concerns and create opportunities. She spoke with ABILITY’s Pamela K. Johnson about the challenges that still lie ahead.
Pamela K. Johnson: What are your duties as director of the Employment and Disability Institute?
Susanne Bruyère: I have a variety of different functions. As associate dean of outreach, I have administrative responsibilities in the ILR school. I’m the principal investigator on three projects. I design and implement studies, perform research, and provide oversight and training. I also teach on campus, where we offer nine disability-focused courses.
Johnson: What sorts of degrees are awarded to students coming out of the ILR school?
Bruyère: We don’t offer a degree in disability, but we’re purposely trying to equip students with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial and labor relationships. Graduates, more often than not, are going to go on to become human-resources practitioners and labor-union leaders. A lot of the students with disability backgrounds go into the legal profession. Law can be a concentration within their degree programs.
Johnson: It sounds as if many of your students leave the program prepared to improve the way the world does business.
Bruyère: Absolutely. We offer good background courses on the topic of disability studies, just to provide cultural context. We also have courses on employment and disability policy, employment law with a focus on disability, and human-resources practices as they relate to disability. We try to make our courses something our students can integrate into their work, when they go out into the real world.
Johnson: What classes do you teach?
Bruyère: I’ve taught most of them, including Introduction to Disability Studies and a course on employment and disability policy. In the coming year, I’ll be teaching a course on human resources and disability considerations, as well as several more policy-oriented courses.
My favorite courses to teach are those that center on human-resources studies, because they so directly focus on employer practices. That’s the area where our students will likely make their greatest contributions.
In addition to my responsibilities as a teacher, I manage a unit of 40 people, as well as 12- to 15-sponsored projects. Our focus, for the most part, is on disabilities, employer practices and non-discrimination in employment policy. We set the vision and the agenda on an annual basis—or even on a longer-term basis—with an eye towards keeping these talented people, and these projects, in alignment with our mission.
Johnson: Tell me more about your projects.
Bruyère: They’re focused on the accommodation and accessibility required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Through our Federal 2 regional center—which is New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands—we provide training, technical assistance and information to entities covered by the ADA. This includes employers, businesses, disabilities services and advocacy groups, educational entities, and other state- and local-government organizations.
Our community inclusion project ensures people with disabilities get the most integrated experiences available. For instance, if an individual has the opportunity to live in a community, we make sure that person doesn’t live in segregated housing. We look at inclusion and focus on giving people the chance to make their own choices. We call the work that we do “person-centered practices.”
Johnson: What’s the relationship between person-centered practices and the Employer Assistance and Resource Network?
Bruyère: The Employer Assistance and Resource Network, which we call EARN, is a website and resource center that offers employers the support they need to recruit, hire, retain and promote people with disabilities. It falls under our National Employer Technical Research and Policy Center, which is funded by the Department of Labor.
Johnson: How do you measure EARN’s effectiveness?
Bruyère: In several ways: We look at the number of products downloaded from the website, and the number of technical assistance calls we get from different constituencies. In the months since we redesigned our website, we’ve made a concerted marketing effort to increase its use. Our Workforce Recruitment Program—through which we find jobs and internships for young people with disabilities—has also increased traffic to our site.
Johnson: What age group are you referring to when you say “young people”?
Bruyère: For the most part, I’m talking about people who are of college age. Our service started out as a way to recruit young people, but there are older folks in our pool as well.
Johnson: What other job-seeking resources are available to help people in this population?
Bruyère: The Department of Labor funds the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which has been in existence for probably 25 years now. JAN provides technical assistance with accommodation—by telephone and email— to all kinds of entities, including employers. It’s an excellent resource.
We have 10 Regional Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers across the country, each funded for 20 years by the Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and Title I.
People who develop employment policy on behalf of people with disabilities can get helpful information from Cornell’s online statistical resources. They’re free and they’re available in both English and Spanish. We also provide an annual disabilities status report, extensive online reports, and informational seminars, at no cost to the public, both nationally and state by state.
Of course, there are also service-provision resources, like the state vocational-rehabilitation agencies. There are more than 80 of them across the country, along with many, many community-service providers that offer help to job seekers.
Johnson: What are some of the major challenges to employment for people with disabilities?
Bruyère: The pool of jobs in the United States is more restricted today than it’s been in better economic times. If employers perceive all other things as being equal between two candidates, but know they have to make an accommodation for one of them, they may be intimidated by that prospect. And if they perceive an accommodation as being too costly, that can be an impediment.
A lot of times these misconceptions are based on a lack of knowledge and information about how to accommodate people. That’s our biggest barrier, because it doesn’t really take that much, cost-wise or logistically. We accommodate people all the time in the workplace. Employers don’t think about that, and they don’t realize that they already do it.
Johnson: How are employers being held accountable for making needed accommodations?
Bruyère: There’s nothing in the law that requires them to report on how they’ve accommodated anyone. Nor is there anything in the law that currently requires them to talk about equitable access to jobs. That may change in the future. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs is considering more stringent requirements for recipients of federal contracts, which would include a tighter reporting protocol on affirmative action for people with disabilities.
Johnson: Is it left to employers’ consciences, to some extent, to guide them towards being inclusive?
Bruyère: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin—does not impose the same expectations on areas of disability employment. But I don’t know that I’d say the issue is completely left to employers’ consciences. People can file lawsuits, and they do so all the time, under the ADA.
Part of the law definitely provides protections, a right that people exercise regularly. People with disabilities are filing claims in larger numbers, on a per capita basis. So they are exercising the right to protection, and that’s good. They know about the law, and they know the process through which they need to go if they feel their rights have been violated, whether they’re on the job or still within the application process.
Johnson: What do you think has been achieved since the ADA was signed into law, and what remains to be done, as it relates to employment?
Bruyère: We’ve made significant gains in 20 years. Now employers think before they put explicitly prohibitive language in job descriptions, or ask questions that flag a person’s disabilities in interviews or on applications. We were nowhere before the ADA. So over the years, we’ve educated employers about the processes and practices that are inherently discriminatory, and about which many were quite oblivious before. That’s an important contribution.
We’ve also enabled people who are already in the workforce to exercise their rights in terms of retention. I think, historically, people who’ve had a disability or an illness have been the most easily marginalized. ADA protections afford them a place to file a complaint if they feel they’ve been disparately treated as expendable workers in a layoff.
Johnson: What do you think is at the core of the discrimination faced by people with disabilities?
Bruyère: It’s a combination of a lack of information about what makes it possible for people with disabilities to work, and inherent misconceptions about their capabilities. There are biases and stereotypes. Disability isn’t unique in this area, but we still need to tackle it.
Johnson: How did you get involved with disabilities issues?
Bruyère: My first jobs were in disability-oriented settings, and I have several family members with disabilities. I worked in a state psychiatric hospital at 16, which got me interested in this area.
As an undergraduate in college, I majored in special education and psychology, and then I went on to get a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation. Helping people find employment equips them to be financially independent, so it’s one of the most important things we can do for them. I then began to get interested in creating effective service-delivery structures, and that interest motivated me to do doctoral study in rehabilitation psychology.
Since that time, I’ve worked with service systems and in employment policy and employer practices. The School of Industrial and Labor Relations is a terrific home from which I can focus on employer practices.
Johnson: Did any of your family members with disabilities face employment challenges?
Bruyère: I think everybody does. Part of my interest in discrimination comes from seeing people—both near me and in the broader community—who have difficulty finding appropriate service structures and who face biases in their own communities. These kinds of biases aren’t just part of one person’s story, they’re part of the stories of many people. That’s why we try to get the voice of the disability community involved in what we do. We’ve partnered, for example, with the American Association of People with Disabilities for at least 10 or 12 years now. We want that sort of input in all the work we do.