October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which always includes a number of celebrations, rallies and ceremonies across the U.S.
Amongst other things, October is the beginning of fall. What does that have to do with the employment of workers with disabilities, you ask? In my mind, the similarities are many.
First, fall signifies the preparation for a new beginning, which comes in the spring. For individuals who have experienced any period of unemployment, taking a new job requires a similar preparation for a new beginning. Many individuals today, both with a disability and without, are diligently seeking employment but not finding the right job – or any job, for that matter. For this reason, more and more people are pursuing volunteer opportunities as a path to full-time, competitive employment.
Recently Fast Company posted a great article about volunteerism as a way to opening new doors to employment opportunities. Particularly for individuals with limited work experience, volunteering offers a wide range benefits, enabling you to:
- Expand your network through new connections with a number of people you may never have had the chance to meet otherwise
- Showcase your talents before a new audience, in new ways, on a new platform
- Develop new talents you may never have discovered without this experience
- Cultivate strong references for future jobs
More and more businesses are interested in hiring new employees with strong volunteer experiences. Employers report that they increasingly favor candidates who volunteer, because these individuals are passionate about and committed to something bigger than themselves. Additionally, it oftentimes shows how the candidate can apply their volunteer experiences and achievements to their “real jobs,” adding significant value to their employers.
How I went from student volunteer to valuable employee
When I was in graduate school, I did a lot of volunteering as well as unpaid internships. Early on, I volunteered at a local hospital, where I provided patient education, family education and peer counseling. This experience fueled my interest in the areas of medical recovery, policy and the connections between the two.
In fact, I landed my first job through a strong professional relationship I had developed at the hospital. The primary social worker I partnered with had recommended me to a former colleague and current friend, who ultimately became my first boss. So volunteerism led me down my desired career path. For many people, particularly those with disabilities, volunteering offers a unique platform to showcase your skills and land a job that best suits them. I know this first hand.
But for far too long, employers looked at hiring a person with a disability as “the right thing to do,” instead of “the smart thing to do.” I believe this has been a large part of the problem. Today, things are different – and they should be. Businesses do not and should not hire people with disabilities because it’s the right thing to do; they should hire them because they are productive workers who maximize a competitive advantage.
Of course, individuals must possess the right skill sets to make them viable candidates for jobs. But we can build a bridge between knowledge and job skills through volunteering, charting a whole new course to employment, especially for people with disabilities. I expect – and hope – to see this trend growing over time.
As we celebrate fall, and the hints of a new beginning, let’s look at National Disability Employment Awareness Month as a new beginning as well. A new beginning for employers seeking to hire people with disabilities – who, time and again, prove to be highly qualified, productive and loyal workers…and a new beginning for candidates with disabilities to seek out those volunteer positions that could turn into career opportunities of a lifetime.