Reflecting on National Disability Employment Awareness Month 2021

According to the United States Department of Labor, individuals with disabilities comprise the largest minority in the US at nearly 50 million people. Yet, when it comes to raising awareness of the systemic issues facing people with disabilities, never mind effectively tackling them, our institutions have an extraordinary amount of work to do. A small but important step towards improving these efforts is recognizing observations like National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).

NDEAM is commemorated every October to honor the contributions of people with disabilities and neurodivergent individuals in the workplace and to our economy. The observation dates back to 1945. At the time, Congress enacted a law and declared a weeklong celebration of “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week,” which it then changed to “National Employ the Handicapped Week” in 1962 to acknowledge the entire spectrum of disabilities. In 1988, Congress turned the observation into a month-long affair and renamed it “National Disability Employment Awareness Month.”

This year’s observation comes at a somber time as we reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. Ruth Sullivan, a legendary Autism advocate, who recently passed. Dr. Sullivan founded the Autism Society of America, as well as the Autism Services Center and the West Virginia Autism Training Center, and worked tirelessly over the span of six decades to improve the lives of people with autism and those who care for them. Her work was instrumental in pushing forward autism-specific research and services, as well as mainstreaming autism-specific language.

During this NDEAM, we also celebrate the work of McArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient and member of our very own President’s Diversity Advisory Community Council Susan Sygall. CEO and co-founder of Mobility International USA (MIUSA), Sygall is a titan in the Eugene community. MIUSA boasts a global reach and works to empower leaders and policymakers to ensure people with disabilities have all the rights and opportunities to contribute fully to society. Sygall’s advocacy spans everything from reshaping how we view architectural design to building international programs.

The work of advocates like Sygall around “universal design,” which refers to creating maximum accessibility for people with disabilities in all everyday activities, greatly influences how we approach development at the University of Oregon. While there is still plenty of work to do, we now look at every project with an accessibility lens.

The UO is also working to better promote research around disability and neurodiversity. For example, UO researcher Shiloh Deitz published a report earlier this spring titled “Free Movement: Enhancing Open Data to Facilitate Independent Travel for Persons with Disabilities.” This report provides much needed examination of the environmental data that underlies why 70 percent of people with disabilities report traveling less because of lack of accessibility, as well as potential solutions to this issue. As the UO works to better support and promote research like this, we are also working to provide more publicly accessible data on disability and neurodiversity in our campus community overall.

We plan to reflect on this and other issues, as well as provide plenty of opportunities to celebrate the contributions of neurodiverse UO community members and those with disabilities during this year’s campus celebration of NDEAM. Activities include the “Deaf Resistance and Affirmation Art: Linocut Prints” exhibition by David Call and screenings of “Why I Got the Shot,” a video series featuring members of UO’s community with disabilities telling their stories about why they got the COVID-19 vaccine, and “Who Am I to Stop It?,” a documentary about isolation, art and transformation after suffering a brain injury.

The national theme of this year’s observation is “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion” and the UO seeks to embody that spirit in all of our NDEAM 2021 activities. We sincerely hope