An interview with Tony Coelho and Joyce Bender.
This year Bender Consulting Services, Inc. launched the Bender/Coelho Disability Consortium to elevate the critical connection between employers and the disability community. Since the signing of the ADA, there has been no significant change in employment statistics for people with disabilities. The unemployment gap between those living with and without disabilities remains staggering.
Tony, why do you believe unemployment has remained a critical area of need for the disability community since the signing of the ADA 33 years ago?
I believe we are a community that has long been undervalued and underrepresented in the employment space, in part because we have been viewed simply as a community wanting jobs. However, the truth is more complex as we need to be viewed as a community that brings value and cutting-edge skill sets to employers across the country. Unemployment has remained a critical issue for our community because much of our pride and self-worth begins with having access to gainful employment and career opportunities. Until we have this, it will remain a top priority for all of us in the disability community.
Tony, why do you believe the Bender/Coelho Disability Consortium will make a difference?
Simply put, if we are to make progress around unemployment, it will happen through one-on-one conversations with leaders in Corporate America and beyond. We need support from the CEO level to see significant change in the employment of people with disabilities. We need CEOs who have made a commitment to the consortium to convey to other CEOs that hiring people with disabilities is not charity, it is a business investment.
Joyce, why did you choose the 10 hires as the commitment?
I wanted to select a number that would resonate across a wide range of companies, from very large to smaller sized organizations. We all need to come together to make a difference in this area, and we wanted to show people that no matter what industry your organization falls within or the size of your footprint, you can include people with disabilities and realize the contribution this group of people has to offer. Ten is a starting point – a minimum commitment to be recognized as a part of the consortium. Some of our customers, like Highmark, commit to hiring many more than ten.
Tony, how did you meet Joyce and what were your thoughts about her business?
I first met Joyce in 1996 when she was appointed to the President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities, by me. At that time, I reported to President Clinton and was leading the charge to see an increase in the employment of people with disabilities. Joyce was the only person focused on competitive employment in the not-for-profit world. She is a force for change not only in the United States but around the world breaking barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Like me, she lives with epilepsy, and we are both fighting to reduce stigma. In terms of Bender Consulting Services, I’ve always been inspired and impressed by the clarity of mission and vision that Joyce and her team have around finding individuals with disabilities job opportunities across the country.
Joyce, when you started Bender, did you ever think that you would be making a commitment to hiring 100 people in a single year?
No. When I first started working in this area, I thought of connecting 100 people with disabilities as a lifetime goal. Then I hit the goal and far surpassed it. Today, we are focused on hiring a minimum of 100 people with disabilities a year. I feel as if we had an initial breakthrough and I plan on continuing to increase the number of people with disabilities we hire. I know that without competitive employment, you are never ever free in this country or any other.
Joyce, why did you choose employment as an area of focus for your company?
As an executive search consultant with my own search firm, I was already immersed in the area of employment in the private sector. Those years of experience with an understanding of what it takes to get a job and build a successful career. Through volunteer work within the disability community, I saw first-hand how people with disabilities who were graduating with in-demand skills being sought out by my customers were being left out. I could not believe this great talent was being ignored because they had disabilities. I knew that people with disabilities could be successful in the workplace if given the opportunity. Those corporations were missing out on great talent and sadly, many still are today. There is an untapped labor pool with skills companies are seeking. People with disabilities want to work and value work and have skills in all fields including STEM. Today I represent the State Department on a global basis as an expert on the employment of people with disabilities. Finding employment for people with disabilities is a life-long crusade.
Tony, why do you believe companies benefit from partnering with Joyce and her team?
First, Joyce has an incredible track record of success in Corporate America and the public sector. I think the late Governor Thornburg said it all when he discussed Joyce’s long-term partnership with the National Security Agency. He said, “If the National Security Agency hires people with disabilities from Bender Consulting Services, what’s your excuse?” Joyce’s excellent leadership team is comprised of people with disabilities and an understanding of disability rights. I cannot think of a better company to select if you plan on hiring people with disabilities.
What does a company need to have in place in order to successfully hire a person with a disability?
Tony: They need a commitment from the top; it all begins there. Engaging leaders at the company to discuss their own disability and support employment makes all the difference. I would suggest ongoing training in the disability space. Joyce offers a product, iDisability that breaks down barriers and educates all employees to better understand how to work and communicate with people with disabilities. Working with Joyce and her team at Bender Consulting Services will absolutely result in success.
Joyce: Where the rubber meets the road is hiring people with disabilities to demonstrate your commitment. When employers ask me, “What do we need to do to be successful?” I always say, “Hire someone”. It is critically important to have support at the CEO level, but also having committed hiring managers. When you plan on hiring people with disabilities have targeted goals and targeted positions. Equipping your team with training solutions and having candid conversations with your team regarding disability inclusion is essential. Suggest your disability equity team start an Employee Resource Group (ERG), participate in Disability Mentoring Day and include veterans with disabilities in their programs. Reiterate, that hiring people with disabilities is not charity, it is a business investment.
Joyce, what types of positions and career opportunities do you think companies who are part of the consortium will target?
We anticipate filling a variety of positions across several industries, ranging from manufacturing to STEM to finance, human resources, and more. We anticipate that a percentage of our positions will be geared toward early career development and others will be more mid-level to higher-level positions. At Bender, we have placed candidates in roles from internships to the c-suite.
What message would you like to share with the disability community about this consortium?
Tony: We are determined to use this initiative to make a national statement on the value of employing people with disabilities. This exclusion of us in the workplace must stop! Stigma must end! I am committed to you and have been committed to you since authoring the ADA and I will not stop.
Joyce: Get ready! We are going to explode in growth and have a breakthrough in finally seeing corporations take a stand in employment. People with disabilities must be included in company’s diversity plans and if you have a disability and are seeking competitive employment, that means you. We want to see real change starting to occur when it comes to employment equity. This consortium is about widening impact. Go to benderconsult.com and watch our job postings and be ready to apply, be ready to interview, and be ready to accept an offer! Disability Rights are Civil Rights! And Civil Rights means equity in employment. I am behind you and will be on this crusade for employment until I finally see significant change.