NDEAM: SDI’s work to advance a truly inclusive workforce

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KMOV's Cory Stark speaks with Shawn Makepeace at the St. Louis Zoo.

Starkloff strives to eliminate societal misconceptions and preconceived notions about people with disabilities all throughout the year, but rarely is our message more earnest and emphatic than during October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).

The origins of NDEAM trace back to 1945, when Congress declared the first week in October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” We’ve come a long way since then, seeing NDEAM blossom into a month-long celebration of employees with disabilities making a difference in the workplace.

In addition to recognizing SDI’s progress toward a truly inclusive workforce that welcomes disabled people, NDEAM is a time to acknowledge the tireless advocacy efforts that must continue if we are to fulfill this mission.

Through a multifaceted campaign incorporating television coverage, print and social media messaging, outdoor advertising, as well as numerous outreach events and public speaking engagements, SDI has achieved an unprecedented amount of exposure during NDEAM 2019 in St. Louis.

Accommodations brought about by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), innovative solutions through technology, growing commitment to the implementation of universal design concepts—advances like these are helping people with disabilities overcome more and more of the physical road blocks to competitive employment.

Attitudinal barriers still persist, however, and are perhaps the most difficult to eradicate. Individuals with disabilities are too frequently viewed as fragile victims who need protection rather than competent professionals in need of opportunity. Hiring managers believe that accommodations will be expensive and inconvenient.

All too often, job seekers with disabilities are treated as low-production, high-maintenance candidates who require special treatment. Thus, they are not given equal consideration alongside non-disabled applicants.

Our Workforce, Workplace Disability Summit jump-started the month’s activities with an educational conference for local companies looking to strengthen their commitment to inclusive hiring. Attended by more than 100 HR professionals from across the region, WWDS featured a variety of breakout sessions, discussions led by working professionals with disabilities, and a keynote presentation given by Lori Golden, Abilities Strategy Leader for Ernst and Young.

SDI founder Colleen Starkloff appeared as a guest on KMOV-TV’s Great Day St. Louis early in the month to discuss the mission of our organization and the importance of NDEAM. She talked about how, although the spirit of the ADA promises a level playing field for job seekers with disabilities, statistics suggest a discouraging lack of progress in this area. She points out that 80 percent of people with disabilities are out of the workforce altogether. Colleen goes on to cite a 54% unemployment rate among college graduates with disabilities, a trend SDI hopes to reverse by educating its corporate partners on the best strategies for successfully integrating this previously untapped talent.

“When you live with a disability, you become innovative, creative, think outside the box, a good time manager and good people person …” Colleen explains to viewers. “Those are transferable skills to the workforce, and when you bring us into the workforce—I have a disability myself—we enhance your bottom line.”

During a Facebook Live interview with KMOV, Colleen reiterated the history and significance of NDEAM and detailed SDI’s efforts to remain at the forefront of disability employment advocacy in St. Louis. She emphasized the fact that the pool of qualified applicants with disabilities is growing rapidly, just waiting to be discovered by talent-hungry companies.

“What I can promise to every employer who might be listening today is that there is a greater number of people going to college, tech schools and trade schools—that’s the population that we are serving—who will be their next great employees,” Colleen confidently proclaims.

KMOV partnered with SDI throughout the month, airing a series of stories featuring successful Starkloff Career Academy graduates as well as a recurring public service announcement providing additional information about our unique programs and resources.

Targeted email marketing and social media campaigns played a vitally important role in raising awareness throughout the month as well. Our disability conversation starters and employment tips generated thousands of “Likes.”

SDI also distributed a downloadable toolkit for employers to learn about NDEAM and promote it in their own offices. The toolkit included an official NDEAM flyer, etiquette tips for engaging with disabled coworkers, key talking points, social media posts and email templates.

Despite the ubiquity of the internet, in-person interaction and eye-catching signage can still cut through the virtual buzz and impact an audience. Colleen attended a regional chamber meeting where she spoke with Gov. Parson, Mayor Krewson and Sen. Blunt, important allies in the fight for disability rights across our city and state.

Our staff distributed 250 NDEAM posters to corporate and community partners throughout St. Louis. Colleen hand-delivered posters to Ameren, Nestle Purina, Express Scripts, FleischmannHillard and Olin. Five billboards prominently positioned in high-traffic locations throughout the city blasted our message to passing motorists as well: “St. Louis works best when everyone works.”

Thanks to KMOV-TV, DDI Media, our dedicated board members, staff, corporate partners and generous donors, NDEAM 2019 was bigger and better than ever. While October has been a month of tremendous exposure, education, and awareness, disability employment advocacy is a year-round proposition, and we hope you will continue to support us in our mission.

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