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Moving from Handouts to Handshakes

April 30, 2002

Moving from Handouts to Handshakes
Written by Craig Gray
Edited by Caryn S. Kaufman

Reprinted with permission from We Media Inc. and Craig Gray
(Original print date February 11, 2002, We Media Inc.)

We, people with disabilities, have made significant progress advancing our participation in American society - more progress than we give ourselves credit for. Perhaps we undervalue our success because we are, among ourselves, so diverse that often the only thing we have in common is that our abilities are frequently - for no good reason - underestimated.

We share that experience with the world's other marginalized groups which, interestingly, comprise the majority of the world's population - such as women, people of color, and all the other differences that deviate from the traditional figure of success and open participation: the non-disabled, European, white male.

As I look towards an even better future for us, I must confess that in some ways, our own attitudes impede our progress toward full participation in all aspects of society. Simply put, it is us - ourselves - who too often perpetuate the notion that people with disabilities are less able, and therefore, more needy.

We do this when we approach others seeking charity rather than building relationships based on a quid pro quo; based on creating value exchange that is acknowledged and respected. We must move from this charity mindset to creating relationships based on the equal footing of a handshake rather than a handout if we are to achieve our goal of full participation in all aspects of American life.


A key step in our progress towards this goal is for us to stop underselling the value we bring to the table. Only we can do this for ourselves. It's up to us.

Let's reflect for a moment on some of our successes of the past decade, lest we forget how powerful we really are. We have made great strides since the implementation of the ADA to the point where we've outdistanced some of the measures of our participation, such as in the labor statistics. Are we close to our goal? Absolutely not; but there is no doubt that an ever increasing number of American businesses value people with disabilities both as a market and as a source of valuable employees.

One needs only to watch television for a short time to see advertisements aimed at people with disabilities. I recall being thrilled a few years ago when a couple of companies ran ads featuring athletes with disabilities. This, I thought, was a breakthrough. And today, such commercials - for sports, fashion and all categories in between - are quickly becoming commonplace.

Why? The answer is not rocket science - but it does involve math. A major marketing research firm estimates the 2001 annual aggregate spending of people with disabilities in the United States at $1 trillion. The same research company found that people with disabilities are highly motivated to spend money in areas that significantly improve their quality of life. These include travel, entertainment, education, clothing, computers, exercise equipment, sports gear, transportation, and house cleaning services.

A national poll conducted prior to the Atlanta Paralympic Games in 1996 and recently confirmed by a study undertaken by Sprint Communications, found that Americans are more likely to respond favorably to cause-related marketing in the area of disabilities than in any other cause-related sector.

Coinciding with this, the same national study reported that people would be more likely to purchase products and services from companies that are disability-friendly. Why? Again the answer is pretty straightforward. There are an estimated 54 million Americans with disabilities, roughly one fifth of the population. Perhaps even that number is under-reported if you include the aging population that is becoming functionally impaired but doesn't consider itself 'disabled.'


Since the implementation of the ADA, people with disabilities are everywhere. One in three of us has a family member, a friend, or works closely with a person who has a disability. All this societal contact offers great opportunity for us to challenge preconceptions about who we are, how we are and all that we are capable of.

And all this mixing of relationships among people who are disabled and non-disabled deepens understanding and supports our work toward full participation. We have all seen people without disabilities become irate at the discriminatory treatment a friend with disabilities has received.

In my view, there are no advocates more fervent than the families and friends of people with disabilities. I recall times twenty years ago when, as a wheelchair user, I was often forced to enter a restaurant through the kitchen ramp - more frequently used to wheel in heads of lettuce and cases of tomato paste than people. And yes, it remains true that I still can't get into every restaurant through the front door, but today I do have more choices. I also have enlightened non-disabled friends who won't patronize inaccessible restaurants, even when they're dining without me.


Remember the $1 trillion in spending power I mentioned earlier? When you factor in the additional spending power of families and friends of people with disabilities, you've got the answer as to why so many companies are now making a pitch for the disabled market. We've progressed and evolved from being virtually invisible to marketers to being a target market segment that is commanding significant attention.

We're making progress in the employment area, too. The 2000 National Organization on Disability/Harris Survey found that the employment picture for people with disabilities aged 18 to 29 (the "ADA babies") is the most promising. Among this group, 57 percent of those with disabilities who are able to work are employed compared with 72 percent of their non-disabled counterparts. This is a gap of only fifteen percentage points and a strong reason for optimism as we go forward.

As with all statistics, there is noise in some of the numbers floating around relative to employment of people with disabilities. In fact, some contend we can no longer effectively measure employment progress because the basic question about disability used by the Current Population Survey has lost its relevance. This basic question is used to select the pool of people with disabilities for reporting purposes, yet it screens out many people with disabilities who are active and leading full lives of equal participation.

The CPS shows the employment rate among people with disabilities actually decreasing since implementation of the ADA - but those of us with disabilities know that this simply is not true. We know that significantly more of us are holding down jobs, paying taxes and providing for our families.

What's the problem with the survey? The funny thing is that it is not the question, which has not changed over the years, that renders the reporting bogus. Instead, it's the answer that has made the question irrelevant to the screener's objective.

Let me explain. When asked fifteen years ago if I had a health problem, disability or handicap that kept me from participating fully in work, school, housework, or other activities, I would have had to say yes - because without ramps, curb cuts and reliable transportation, I was prevented from participating as fully as my non-disabled peers in work activities.

But that's no longer true for me. Now, with increasing accessibility since ADA implementation and actions resulting from the corresponding awareness of people with disabilities as both good employees and a good market, my answer to that basic question has changed. I am not prevented from participation in any of the activities in the question, though my wife would be quick to say that my participation in housework does not equal that of the balance of our household.

Bill Marriott, CEO of Marriott International, Inc., underscored the importance of people with disabilities in the workforce when he spoke at the 21st Century Workforce Summit in Washington, D.C. in June 2001. Marriott said his company employs approximately 5,000 people with disabilities. In his estimation, if the company had to reduce its workforce, employees with disabilities would be the last to go. Why? Because, he said, they generally have shown themselves to be excellent workers in specific performance categories. They are, he said, more loyal and more responsive to customers.

This corroborates the survey results of other companies in service industries. Facts about the performance and capabilities of people with disabilities are eclipsing outdated stereotypes, creating more and better opportunities for us all.

There is room for us as peers at negotiating tables all over the United States now and what comes with that seat at the table is the respect and recognition of people with disabilities as viable, productive and important members of society. This is what we say we want. Then it is incumbent upon us to rise to the occasion in a way that advances our overall agenda as people with disabilities.

We must recognize that businesses will benefit as much as we will when we share our expertise in reaching the market of people with disabilities, when we provide opportunities to acknowledge their appreciation of people with disabilities by sponsoring programs, activities and events related to people with disabilities, and when we bring our considerable talents to bear as employees.

We must let the principle of moving from handouts to handshakes guide us - and drive us - as we continue to move onward and upward toward our goal of full participation.

Craig Gray is director of EmployAbility Programs and Web site Operations for the National Organization on Disability, and works as a consultant specializing in integrating business and disability for several companies and organizations. He has written articles for several publications, is a frequent guest lecturer and has been profiled on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered".

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