Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, Bethesda, Md.
When Hillary Clinton released a YouTube video this past weekend to officially announce her latest presidential campaign, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi noticed something was missing in the diverse demographic groups represented in the video: there were no people with disabilities.
"Fully 20 percent of Americans have a disability and the majority of voters have a loved one with a disability," said Mizrahi in a press statement released after the Clinton video went online. "We urge Hillary Clinton and all the other Presidential candidates to focus on jobs for people with disabilities. We want to be included in the 'Opportunity Agenda!'"
As the driving force behind RespectAbility, national nonpartisan organization advocating for America's 56 million people with disabilities, Mizrahi is on a mission to ensure that people with disabilities are included in all aspects of the American experience - especially the workforce. We spoke with her about her important mission.
Q: It has been 25 years since the Americans With Disabilities Act has been signed into law. A quarter-century after this important legislation was passed, how is the employment picture for the disabled in America?
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: Terrible. Pre-ADA, fully 70 percent of people with disabilities were out of the workforce. Today, that number is exactly the same. Meanwhile, during that same time period, women and minorities made important progress. So the gap in employment between people with and without disabilities has actually increased significantly over these years.
Thankfully, now there can be progress because of new laws that give states and the workforce system the flexibility to spend their workforce development dollars on things that work – instead of continuing to use our tax dollars to fund failure. Moreover, smart companies have found the business case for hiring and promoting people with disabilities - because we can make wonderful employees and contributors to organizations.
Q: In your recent testimony before the U.S. Department of Labor, you cited a Princeton study shows that while people with disabilities are seen as warm, they are not seen as competent. Why in the world would anyone consider a disabled person to be incompetent?
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: Disability is defined by the inability to do something. If you are blind, you can’t see. If you are deaf, you can’t hear. So stigmas came up which made people think that if you can’t do one thing, you can’t do anything.
But that is totally wrong. First of all, with assistive technology people who are blind or deaf can work successfully in the workforce. Indeed, even before assistive technology that was true for many. The massive global company EY (formerly Ernst & Young) was named after a cofounder, Arthur Young, who was deaf. He also happened to be brilliant at his job. Prof. Abraham Briloff was one of the best accountants on earth. He testified before congress dozens of times on ethics in finance – yet he was blind and did not use assisted technology. Someone read to him and he memorized everything. Brilliant man.
But now there is technology which makes things much easier. And where there is a disability in one area – there is often a gift in another area.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great book, David and Goliath, that shows the talents of people who have faced serious challenges. They learn to adapt and preserve. Often they are better at things!
People with disabilities bring unique characteristics and talents to workplaces that benefit employers and organizations. For example, Stephen Hawking is a genius who happens to use a wheelchair. People with disabilities can work in restaurants, tend our parks, and develop computer software. High turnover fields such as hospitality, retail, and nursing homes can benefit greatly from the talents of people with disabilities who are loyal employees.
Q: For the benefit of those not familiar with your work, how has RespectAbility been able to break down barriers and stereotypes that prevent the disabled from gaining proper employment?
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: It’s all about just sharing facts about how well people with disabilities can do in the workforce. Companies need real talent and people with disabilities can deliver them. Companies including Walgreens, EY, AMC, Walmart, SAP, Pepsi and others have shown that employees with disabilities are loyal, successful and help them make more money. When we find the right jobs for the right people it can and does increase the bottom line of companies.
Q: Is discrimination against the disabled worse overseas? Or are there areas around the world, such as the examples you cited in your Department of Labor testimony with the Israeli Air Force and the Israeli Electric Company, where attitudes and solutions are more progressive?
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: There is not a single country on earth where people with disabilities don’t face stigmas and challenges. But there are pockets of great progress. For example, in North and South Dakota, along with Montgomery County, Maryland, there are great employment outcomes for people with disabilities. Wonderful work is being done by the governors of Delaware, Wisconsin, Iowa and other states that makes me very optimistic that people with disabilities and their employers in these states will see great progress.
Things can be horrific in places like Africa, India and China. There are millions of children with disabilities around the world who have been left as orphans - abandoned by their living parents - because they have disabilities. It’s horrible.
However, I recently visited some exciting developments on this front in Israel. Indeed, the Israeli Electric Company (IEC) is one of the most exciting employers of people with disabilities (PwDs) that I have ever seen. In the US, when I think of white-collar employment for PwDs I think of EY. When I think of successful employers of people with developmental disabilities in America, I think of Walgreen's distribution centers. But in terms of one company having fully integrated jobs of all kinds for people with any and all kinds of disabilities, IEC blows the socks off everything else I've seen so far. They have more than 250 employees with disabilities - and they are succeeding in a huge array of jobs. I met with an electrician, a lawyer, a policy advisor and an HR professional who each has a significant impairment of one kind of another. Each is a superstar at their job in addition to being a great person. The employer is able to see the abilities of each individual and maximize success.
Additionally, the Israeli Defense Forces has more than 200 soldiers with disabilities. The program is new and still evolving and improving. Its participants range from super high achieving individuals on the Autism spectrum to those with significant intellectual, social, physical or other disabilities. They work in a range of fields from intelligence to a whole variety of needed tasks. The Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces have each personally been involved in the program. There are also 800 people with disabilities doing national service outside of the military. This too is an outstanding and exciting development. Both of these programs, when perfected, can and should be rolled out far more broadly. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M53ONGVpE8Q.)
In the U.S., there is a Project SEARCH site at a military base in Nebraska. I hope such programs expand in the future.
Q: What can business owners do to help correct the continued discrimination that many disabled workers face today? And how can the business community partner with RespectAbility USA to ensure that change occurs?
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: There are many organizations, including AskJan.org, USBLN.org, and your local vocational rehabilitation organization that can help. You can find talent at TAPAbility.org and get started and bringing in people with disabilities.
Forget the first three letters of the word “disability” and focus on the last four – ABILITY. That’s what it’s all about!
RespectAbility is online at http://www.respectabilityusa.org.