While diversity remains at the forefront of today’s conversation, people with disabilities are woefully underrepresented in the workforce. According to the US Department of Labor, only 21.3% of individuals with disabilities were employed in 2022, while people without disabilities enjoyed a 65.4% employment rate.
“Disability is the most common minority group ,” says Josh Fields, co-founder and CEO of The Next Step Programs. “At their jobs, people with disabilities face unnavigable workplaces, inaccessible technology, and tasks fraught with communication barriers. They want to work, and their friends and neighbors can be the key to helping them overcome the obstacles in their way.”
The first step to an inclusive future is awareness
Before people with disabilities can be included in meaningful work, their community members need to learn how to make workplaces inclusive. Awareness is the key to this change. Learning about a person’s needs is not difficult; it simply takes a little bit of time and the willingness to ask questions.
Today, Josh Fields leads his non-profit to help empower young people with disabilities to find their next step after graduation. His quest for inclusivity didn’t start with a business plan, though. It began with a shock of awareness in his high school cafeteria.
When Fields was 16, he set down his lunch tray and quizzed his classmates about future plans. Friends rattled off ideas for upcoming college tours and careers, but Meghan Kensil — a friend of his with Down Syndrome — remained quiet. Fields pushed her for details about her dream job but only received a shrug in response.
“That was the day I realized some of my friends didn’t have the same chances and opportunities ahead of them,” says Fields. “As a person who liked to dream big, I was devastated that they couldn’t share in the excitement about graduation.”
Fields came to understand that he could only assist his friends with disabilities by educating himself. Learning what it was like to actually have a disability prompted him to press for inclusive environments, and witnessing the discrimination and stigma faced by the disability community motivated him and his co-founder, Richard Price to push for positive change. While statistics and studies were useful, he garnered the most meaningful insight through friendship, curiosity, and real-life conversation.
“Many people are simply not aware of the day-to-day challenges people with disabilities face,” comments Fields. “Until they ask questions about how people access employment, find transportation, and navigate public spaces, they just won’t understand. But by educating themselves and learning more about the disability community, friends and neighbors can become advocates in creating inclusive and supportive environments.”
Awareness leads to actions that create inclusive environments
During the summer of his junior year in high school, Fields volunteered at a camp for young adults with Down Syndrome, where he met his future co-founder Ricky Price. At camp, Fields mentioned his ongoing frustration with the lack of post-graduation opportunities for his high-school friends with disabilities and found that Price shared the same concerns for his brother who had been diagnosed with neurofibromatosis.
“Ricky and I launched the Next Step Programs to give people with disabilities access to exciting opportunities and a sense of belonging in their communities,” Fields recalls. “We provide a wide range of services and support to those with disabilities, including vocational training, employment services, community integration programs, and life skills coaching. Through these programs, we empower individuals with disabilities to live more independent and fulfilling lives and help them achieve their goals and aspirations.”
While not everyone will create a non-profit like Fields, everyone in the community has a part to play in assisting their friends, family members, and neighbors with disabilities. For example, employers play a role by defying discrimination, learning about their employees, and being open to their needs. National employment studies reveal that people with disabilities have equal or higher performance ratings, better retention rates, and less absenteeism than their peers without disabilities.
Most workplaces are designed for able-bodied individuals, but the supports that change this are readily available and typically cost little more than creativity and compassion. When managers become part of the solution, they improve the lives of their own employees; and when they spread their success with other hiring managers, they can help improve lives around the world.
At the same time, neighbors and friends can become involved by learning about people’s individual needs and reaching out to offer support. For instance, one person may offer to provide transportation to appointments or social events, while another may volunteer time at a local disability organization, and still, another may simply offer a friendly ear. In time, these people all become voices advocating for an inclusive community with better public transportation and disability-friendly practices in local businesses.
“When friends and neighbors take time to learn about the specific needs of people with disabilities, they become allies,” says Fields. “First comes awareness, followed by the simple actions that make real differences in the community. By working together and supporting one another, we can collaborate to create a more inclusive and supportive society for everyone — regardless of their ability or disability.”