I was reading an article this morning that spoke about how rising college tuition rates can be attributed to bloated university bureaucracies, and how quickly those have been expanding in recent years. The author pointed to university executive positions related to diversity and inclusion as examples, and while I’m on the fence about her argument over whether or not these positions are needed, it got me thinking about a larger issue. For years I’ve seen this push for “diversity” and “inclusion,” both in business, society, and education, and I’m starting to wonder if the users of these words know what they actually mean. This is because the surrounding conversation always refers to race, gender, and sexual identity, but very rarely does it refer to wheelchair users or people with disabilities.
Let me pivot for a minute to give you a recent example of my frustration with these terms. A couple of weeks ago, Bradley University in Illinois — a private institution — sent out an email advertising a job opening for an Assistant Director of Diversity and Inclusion. The job description stated, “This position will be responsible for the development and implementation of programs and services targeting historically underrepresented student populations on campus, with a specific focus on Hispanic/LatinX student outreach and retention.” Now, wheelchair users and people with disabilities comprise 19% of the American population, and since we have been historically underrepresented on college campuses everywhere, I would assume this included us. Until I read this little tidbit in the job advertisement:
“Must be able to access non-ADA compliant building.”
That is a winner in the irony category right there. After I posted a screenshot of this email on one of my Facebook pages, it was swiftly brought to my attention that this job advertisement was probably illegal. Lo and behold, Bradley University realized this quickly as well, and changed the wording on their website for job advertisements to exclude this statement. However, that doesn’t change the fact that wheelchair users are completely ineligible for this position if they can’t climb stairs.
Again, this got me thinking, when people in American society hear the words “diversity” and “inclusion,” do they think that it’s just related to race, gender, and sexual preference or identity? (Usually, yes.) Why is it that so few people associate people with disabilities with diversity and inclusion initiatives? I don’t know that there is a standard answer for this, but I would venture to say that it has something to do with us being the quietest and most invisible minority group, despite being the largest.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on my accessible travel blog about why you don’t see more wheelchair users out in public. A huge part of the reason is lack of access to accessible transportation. Another part of it is lack of wheelchair accessibility in many public spaces, as well as a general societal disdain towards people with disabilities. I get frustrated when I see so many efforts in so many American sectors to include people from various racial groups, the LGBTQ+ community, and women, but there is complete silence or utter disregard for including people with disabilities.
Out of curiosity, I went to the job-seeking website Indeed.com and did a search for “Diversity and Inclusion” job openings. There are a LOT, And many of them are senior positions with Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and CBS. Some of them do mention ability/disability as an aspect of diversity and inclusion, but the majority do not go into detail regarding what diverse populations they are looking to target for employment. One company mentioned women and people of color, but not people with disabilities. The positions all involve a human resources capability at some level, and involve recruiting and retaining a diverse array of employees, as well as training existing employees on diversity and inclusion.
Logistically, I would think it’s easier to go out and recruit talent from minority groups based on race, gender, or sexual preference. But what are corporate efforts like to actively seek out wheelchair users for employment, or university efforts to attract students with disabilities to their campuses? Employers are already silently asking themselves if we are capable of doing the jobs they are advertising. On top of that, they have to worry if their offices or job sites are accessible. So many college campuses (and even primary school campuses) across the country are inaccessible to students in wheelchairs, and I’m not aware of a huge national push to improve this situation.
So if wheelchair users and people with disabilities are not naturally a part of the default definition for “diversity” and “inclusion,” how do we change that? Everyone will have a different answer, but my answer is to be more vocal and more visible. As I have written before, this is a challenge on many levels for many people. Community meetings and activities often take place in locations that are not accessible. While they are legally prohibited from saying so, many employers are internally biased against people with physical disabilities and automatically assume that we are incapable of performing certain jobs as well as able-bodied applicants — no matter how physically UNdemanding the job is.
It really sucks that we have to fight every single day to be included in society. It’s even more frustrating that there are more and more job positions being dedicated to inclusiveness every year, yet we still get left out on a regular basis. I’m not a fan of changing the world because it’s a frustrating and exhausting job. I believe the best we can do is to educate one person at a time, one business at a time, one community at a time by showing up and speaking up whenever we have the opportunity. If they don’t make the effort to include us, we must make the effort to include ourselves.