As much as we increasingly recognize the benefits of diversity in our workplaces and communities, there is one population that may be overlooked in discussions of diversity: individuals with disabilities. This year, as we mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, let’s review some basic facts about disabilities, and more important, work to increase the number of individuals with disabilities in Georgia workplaces.

A disability is generally defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities and an individual’s ability to interact with the world around them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25.6% of U.S. adults – more than one in four – have some type of disability; in Georgia, it’s 27.2%, more than 2.7 million adults.

CDC also notes that although “people with disabilities” can sometimes refer to a single population, it is actually a diverse group of people with a wide range of needs. Two people with the same type of disability can be affected in very different ways, and some disabilities may be hidden or not easy to see.

Of course, there are many types of disabilities, such as those we refer to as intellectual and developmental disabilities – conditions that affect person’s vision or hearing, movement, thinking, remembering, learning or communicating. Although some individuals are born with such a disability, others may incur a disability as a result of illness or injury – meaning any of us could experience a disability in our lifetime.

The ADA also recognizes chronic mental illness as a disability – conditions such as major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and others. Like intellectual or developmental disabilities, serious mental illness can limit major life activities of those who are affected.

But regardless of whether an individual has an intellectual or developmental disability, or severe and persistent mental illness, and regardless of how an individual came to have a disability, individuals with disabilities should be considered, especially when it comes to increasing diversity in the workplace.

The fact is, many individuals with disabilities want to work. Everyone wants to be part of a larger purpose, to feel self-sufficient, to provide for their own support. Perhaps more important, many individuals with disabilities can work and are very good employees.

Although not every job is suitable for someone with a disability, most individuals with a disability are very competent in specific jobs. A task that may seem menial to you might be very important to an individual with a disability who wants to contribute to an employers’ mission and to help their community.

At Highland Rivers Health, our Supported Employment program helps link individuals with disabilities with local employers. Our employment specialists not only work with individuals with disabilities to identify skills and job goals, but also with local employers to identify job responsibilities that are a good fit for our individuals. We currently have more than 60 individuals who work with local employers through our Supported Employment programs.

During National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I am calling on employers across Northwest Georgia to explore Supported Employment and learn about the benefits of hiring an individual with a disability, such as tax credits and other incentives. More than that, an employer can help build the self-esteem of an individual with a disability, and his or her ability to live independently in the community. Ultimately, this helps all of us by building a more diverse and inclusive community, and isn’t that the community we all want to live in?

For more information about hiring an individual with a disability, call our mental health Supported Employment program at 678-567-0920, ext. 3406, or our IDD Supported Employment program at 706-270-5050. Our employment specialists are ready to talk to you, and individuals with disabilities are ready to work!

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in the 12-county region of Northwest Georgia.

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