1.1.5 Serving Populations with Disabilities through Advocacy and Awareness Raising
Focus tightly on labor market needs (demand) rather than appealing to corporate social responsibility (CSR) to create robust employment pathways for disabled youth.
Reliance on employers’ charitable efforts, no matter how laudable, is not a recipe for success in workforce development and job placement, as CSR funds are not sustainable and often do not connect to core business interests. Instead, a tight focus on the real hard and soft skill needs of employers in the local labor market, emphasizing niche skills and hard-to-fill or hard-to-retain positions, offers a better initial target for program activities. In Vietnam, CRS’ ITTP program focuses on high-demand, niche technology skills, while Marriot’s Bridges program focuses on creating good matches between job seekers and employer needs, as well as on long-term support for retention. While working with businesses that value a social mission or disability quota is an added benefit, this cannot be a program’s central selling point. It should be remembered, in this context, that soft skills may be a core element of the labor market need, particularly in hospitality-dominated labor markets.
Disabled graduates of CRS Vietnam’s ITTP program can create Web 2.0 applications and compete successfully in the job market with graduates of four-year university degrees. Eighty-four percent of the 509 graduates are employed in the more than 150 companies the program has engaged.
Programs can educate employers and provide value-added services while supporting the disabled in accessing jobs.
Successful programs may choose, initially, either to showcase or to downplay the disability status of beneficiaries, depending on the program’s mission, relationship base, and need in society to raise awareness. In all cases, educating employers should be an integral part of the organization’s mission. In Vietnam, CRS highlights positive characteristics of the disabled workforce, such as loyalty, dependability, appreciation for the opportunity to work, and strong work ethic. Furthermore, it provides supporting statistics to convince employers to find this out for themselves.
In contrast, the Bridges from School to Work program downplays the disability of its clients and instead focuses on the training that its students/clients have received and their motivation and preparedness for specific jobs. Emphasis is placed on the successful experiences that employers have had with graduates, and on the supports that the program’s clients receive to stabilize the employment relationship over the long term.
These ongoing workplace supports—so essential to the employment of disabled students—can themselves be value-added services to employers. Programs can build goodwill for themselves and their participants, and provide ongoing consultative assistance to build employers’ capacity to effectively manage a diverse workforce that includes people with disabilities.
For example, employers may be unsure of how to deal with disability-related workplace issues, particularly legal issues. They may need to make considerations for public transportation dependencies, childcare needs, and scheduling shifts so as to end at a reasonable hour to accommodate youth in school. Bridges helps build this awareness. In some cases, Bridges has provided assistance to employers to communicate more effectively with all staff members in ways that are particularly important for disabled employees. For example, Bridges has assisted managers with how to display schedules to ensure that all employees are able to read them (e.g., highlight/bold names, post them in the same location each time, provide instructions on who to contact for questions about schedules). Finally, programs can play an important role in promoting dialogue between and among businesses to break down myths and stereotypes related to employing the disabled.
When pitching to new employers, highlight role model businesses and their successes with a disabled workforce.
For programs working with disabled youth, solid relationships with employers are indispensible for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the “role model” example provided by businesses that successfully incorporate disabled workers. Businesses that hire significant numbers of disabled youth are potentially the most important advocates for programs, as they can speak directly to the concerns of potential employer partners, and explain how they have overcome (addressed) challenges related to a diverse workforce. The Bridges from School to Work program can provide specific examples from the experience of its widely-respected corporate sponsor, the Marriott Corporation, providing a narrative of success and assuaging the concerns of potential corporate partners. CRS has also found their 30-member business advisory council to be an effective partner in advocacy, and in communicating successes to potential employer partners.
Structure programs and psychosocial supports to address specific disabilities.
Cognitive, mental/emotional, physical, hearing, and vision-based disabilities require vastly different kinds of psychosocial support in the training process and in the workforce. CRS Vietnam, which serves deaf, blind, autistic, and mobility-challenged clients, found that providing medical insurance to disabled participants made them and their families more comfortable with leaving their (predominantly rural) homes to receive training. Among its other services, CRS provides social workers, peer support, social activities, housing, and professional mentoring from alumni. The Bridges from School to Work program serves graduating high school students with cognitive, mental/emotional, physical, hearing, and vision-related disabilities, but with a baseline of mobility in order to access jobs. Aside from its social work-related functions, Bridges focuses on its role as an intermediary for the identification and resolution of workplace issues to assist participants in remaining employed over a period of 12 to 24 months after placement.