Women’s History Month: What States Can Learn from Women Who Advance Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility

By Abeer Sikder, JD and Mary Greenfield

When states implement strategies to promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA)—particularly for women with disabilities who experience additional barriers to employment—they encourage more people to leverage their unique backgrounds to succeed.

This Women’s History Month, we sat down with two exceptional women who champion DEIA every day: Taryn Williams, Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Office of Disability Employment Policy, and Bruny Kenou, a mental health activist and student at George Washington University Medical School. Both women highlighted self-advocacy and mentorship as two powerful tentpoles of support for women in the workplace and offered advice to policymakers for creating accessible futures for everyone.

How Self-Advocacy Grows to Inclusion

Both Williams and Kenou learned to self-advocate as young people, in the context of their own health care. For Williams, it was her mother who encouraged her to ask questions, engage with professionals, and participate in decision-making during her medical appointments. Williams’s mother gave her the confidence to take up space and have her voice be clearly heard.

This early education in self-advocacy translated to a career in advocating for others who often go unrecognized. “I want women with disabilities to know they belong wherever they show up,” Williams says. “You deserve an opportunity to explore your aspirations, to build your skills, to try and be successful in jobs and careers you choose. Whether it be advocating for your accommodations or advocating for … equitable pay, find ways to become your own champion.”

Now, as assistant secretary of labor, Williams’s role is to enable and encourage employers across the United States to foster inclusion, instill equity, and support people with disabilities, including women, to achieve success. “Diversity and inclusion are not something we should have to fight for, but rather something that [should be] a natural and accepted part of our world,” Williams says. “But we’re not there yet.”

As a person who needed mental health care but was reluctant to seek help because of the stigma, Kenou experienced firsthand the lack of support for people facing barriers to care. While she was still an undergraduate in college, Kenou helped found DukeLine, a peer-to-peer mental health support program. She went on to work for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); afterward, she entered medical school to become a physician.

Throughout her career, Kenou found herself fearing the repercussions of seeking mental health care as a job seeker. It was this stigma that motivated her to become a doctor and to cofound Lay Mental Health Advocates (LMHA). “I knew how important this story was to why I wanted to become a physician,” says Kenou, whose organization, LMHA, empowers people in their mental health journey by helping them follow up on appointments and talk to their health care providers about issues like side effects or changes in treatment. “I knew what an asset I would be going in with all these tools that I was able to amass through my healing journey.”

Mentorship and Sponsorship as Best Practice

Mentorship and sponsorship—women helping women—can empower younger workers with disabilities to overcome negative stereotypes about their abilities while elevating DEIA in workplaces.

Kenou notes that mentorship can work both ways, with older generations helping youth and vice versa. In medical school, Kenou benefits from the guidance of an older mentor who has helped her navigate school and even confront stigma around mental health. At the same time, she says, there’s a lot older generations can learn from youth about seeking help, sharing struggles, and embracing inclusion. “We’re so much more open to talking about our struggles and we’re so much more open to being like, ‘I talked to my therapist the other day,’” Kenou says.

While acknowledging that mentors provide essential guidance, especially for underrepresented women, Williams also sees sponsorship as a best practice. “Mentors help reflect back on different experiences,” Williams says, “but sponsors make a difference in addressing those harder barriers keeping us from our employment goals. Sponsorship is really about an individual, often in a senior role, who actively promotes your growth.”
Williams emphasized that mentors encourage women starting out in their careers to think about how to earn raises and promotions, but sponsors have the power to make these things happen and to advance careers.

Although significant job challenges for women with disabilities remain, Kenou says she is inspired by the increasing numbers of women in higher education and in leadership roles. She is especially proud that more and more Black women are earning degrees, and she encourages underrepresented women to find mentors and sponsors who understand their journey. “Lean on your advisors and lean on your mentors … be engaged and have people understand your vision,” Kenou says.

Advice for Policymakers

Williams and Kenou urge policymakers to keep in mind three key considerations that lend tremendous support to women with disabilities:

  1. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Being able to take extended time away from work is crucial for recuperating from illness or caring for a loved one, and the FMLA affords this security to eligible employees. “Women with disabilities … oftentimes need to take that time, but they can’t without sacrificing their job,” says Williams. Additionally, Kenou frequently amplifies this message in her work to expand FMLA protections.
  2. Workforce DEIA funding for people with disabilities. Kenou encourages policymakers to increase funding to support DEIA efforts in the workplace. “I would really like to create a pipeline that increases diversity, especially in medicine and making it so that there is less discrimination,” Kenou says, noting that when young people receive care from providers who look like them or whom they are comfortable with, it helps reduce stigma. When leaders help reduce stigma toward disability, young women will have more confidence to request support.
  3. Inclusion of people with disabilities in leadership. Kenou and Williams want to see people with disabilities—especially women and youth of color who understand intersectionality—included in leadership. “[It ensures] that people with disabilities are represented in policymaking and, conversely, [that] the community knows and is a part of policy development,” Williams says. “Society sends us a message that our needs are less important or an afterthought and that we should just be grateful we’re there in the first place. … [We are] making the case to the broader world—including systems comprising people who make polices that affect our outcomes—[that] the world should be inclusive of us.”

Wisconsin’s Braided Funding Efforts

By Enmanuel Gomez Antolinez

While numerous public, private and nonprofit programs and services are available to support the employment of youth and young adults with disabilities (Y&YAD), a lack of coordination between stakeholders can result in service gaps and duplication. Wisconsin used braided funding strategically to increase coordination and alignment between employers, service providers, education sponsors and workforce systems, enhancing Y&YAD services and outcomes. Braided funding is a financing method that uses multiple funding streams to support the total cost of a program or service. It ensures that funding goes where it is most needed, encourages interagency coordination and ensures the appropriate program and administrative costs are properly charged to each separate funding stream. According to the U.S Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy braided funding can be used to:

  • Support an individual with a disability with the goal of pursuing, gaining, or keeping Competitive Integrated Employment (CIE),
  • Support Pre-Employment Transition Services, and
  • Support post-secondary preparation and transition activities.

The U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ Braiding Federal Funding to Expand Access to Quality Early Care and Education and Early Childhood Supports and Services: A Tool for State and Local Communities discusses this in more detail.

While this tool has an early education focus, the analysis it utilizes is equally applicable  in a transition setting. Specifically, as outlined in the tool, states and local governments may consider implementing the following strategies to support and expand transition services to Y&YAD through braided funding by:

  • Identifying funding streams.
    • Identify what funding sources are available in your state or locality and identify how this funding can be used to achieve specific goals.
  • Developing an inventory of funds known as a fiscal map, directed toward a particular population (e.g., Y&YAD) or service group. A fiscal map can be used to:
    • Recognize duplicative funding streams as well as gaps in funding.
    • Establish methods to use funds more strategically.
  • Identifying eligible populations and comparing funding requirements.
    • For many funding streams, there are rules and restrictions that govern the use of the funds. Therefore, it is important to identify eligible populations and understand the differences in eligibility and reporting requirements among various funding streams available in your state or locality.
  • Building and initiating data-sharing agreements to make it easier for state and local organizations to braid funds.
  • Developing shared goals and a plan for collaboration.
    • Permit local agencies, organizations, task forces, councils or committees to perform coordinated planning and funding functions outside a formal state framework.
    • Use interagency planning groups to coordinate funding for specific objectives.
  • Building state or local programs that use multiple funding streams rather than leaving it to individual provider level to pursue different funding streams.
  • Developing governance structures to support collaboration between agencies and other key players in state or local entities.

Wisconsin is one state that engages in braided funding to support Y&YAD. Wisconsin’s 2020-23 Combined State Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Plan prioritizes and directs state agencies to identify opportunities for braided funding to provide effective employment services to individuals with disabilities. Wisconsin’s WIOA Plan also directs cost-sharing to be negotiated among state entities, such as education, vocational rehabilitation (DVR) and local entities such as long-term care and mental health agencies. For example, cost-sharing may be negotiated among DVR, the school district and long-term care or mental health programs when there is an overlap in educational and employment/rehabilitation goals and services. This negotiation increases coordination between the various parties to ensure their specific funds contributed to the program or service are used for their designated purposes.

Similarly, the Wisconsin Departments of Health Services, Workforce Development and Public Instruction developed a comprehensive Transition Action Guide (TAG). This guide outlines a strategic approach to help Wisconsin state and local governments identify overlaps or gaps in service provision in the areas of communication, coordination and service delivery for Y&YAD transitioning from school to work. It lists funding sources and their eligibility requirements so agencies can pursue braided funding opportunities. The resource also discusses cost-sharing agreements among agencies and when these agreements are appropriate.

For more information and state examples of the benefits of braided funding efforts, review CAPE-Youth’s Improving Transition Services for Youth and Young Adults with Disabilities through Braided Funding.

Celebrating Disability Employment as a Key Component of a Diverse and Equitable Workforce

By Dominique DiSpirito and Abeer Sikder

Each October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) celebrates the contributions workers with disabilities make to building a vibrant, resilient workforce. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) selects a theme for the month and shares resources for employers, policymakers and other workforce stakeholders. The theme this year, “Disability: Part of the Equity Equation,” recognizes “the vital role people with disabilities play in making the nation’s workforce diverse and inclusive.” The theme also highlights the intersectionality of disability with other systemic inequalities, such as racial and gender discrimination.

Continue reading “Celebrating Disability Employment as a Key Component of a Diverse and Equitable Workforce”

National Disability Mentoring Month

By: Luke Byram, CAPE-Youth O’Connor Scholar Intern

January is National Disability Mentoring Month.

According to Partners for Youth with Disabilities Mentoring Director Kristin Humphrey, mentoring is a critical disability inclusion strategy that promotes positive academic, employment and independent living outcomes. Partners for Youth with Disabilities indicate that mentored youth:

  • are more engaged in school,
  • know more about their career options,
  • raise stronger voices as self-advocates and
  • find supportive communities more often.

The results of a 2014 study by MENTOR National show “that young adults who were at risk for falling off track but had a mentor were 130% more likely to hold leadership positions.” The same study shows that “mentored youth were 78% more likely to volunteer regularly and 90% were interested in becoming a mentor.” When youth have positive experiences with mentoring, they are more likely to become mentors themselves.

Students with disabilities benefit from work-based mentoring as much or more than their peers without disabilities. Work-based mentorship helps students with disabilities:

  • clarify academic and career interests,
  • fund education expenses,
  • apply knowledge gained in the classroom,
  • learn to navigate disability disclosure,
  • develop interpersonal and job search skills, and
  • network for employment after graduation.

Started in 2002 by MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership (MENTOR) and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, National Disability Mentoring Month focuses national attention on how mentors create positive outcomes for youth with disabilities. It also shows that when everyone works together, mentoring efforts can make an even bigger impact in young people’s lives. National Disability Mentoring Month aims to:

  • raise awareness of mentoring in its various forms,
  • recruit mentors and
  • recruit organizations to engage constituents in mentoring.

During National Disability Mentoring Month, national partners work with local leaders to organize special events in their communities and invite local media outlets and public officials to attend. These events also help engage adults who are interested in becoming mentors.

Every year, MENTOR holds an event called the National Mentoring Summit that brings together public and private-sector leaders who support the mentoring movement, including:

  • youth leaders,
  • government and civic leaders,
  • practitioners,
  • researchers,
  • philanthropists,
  • MENTOR Affiliates and
  • supporting partner organizations.

The National Mentoring Summit is an opportunity for the mentoring movement to advocate for a policy agenda that strengthens mentoring programs and practices. The 12th Annual National Mentoring Summit will be held as a hybrid event from January 26-28, 2022, in Washington D.C. 

National Apprenticeship Week

By: Chip O’Connell

The seventh annual National Apprenticeship Week (NAW) takes place November 15-21, 2021. NAW is a nationwide celebration where industry, labor, workforce, education and government leaders host events to showcase the successes and value of Registered Apprenticeships for re-building our economy, advancing equity and supporting underserved communities.

Apprenticeships are employer-driven programs that provide hands-on technical training for individuals seeking new skills and employment. Training and instruction are tailored to help the apprentice master skills needed to succeed in a specific occupation. Apprenticeship is a high-quality career pathway, with 92% of apprentices retaining employment in their field and earning an average starting salary of $72,000. Employers utilize these programs to train new employees as well as reskill their existing employees to meet changing demands, resulting in a steady pool of qualified workers. These programs also benefit state governments by lowering unemployment rates and attracting new industries. The Job Corps website contains examples of apprenticeships from programs in industries ranging from automotive and machine repair to homeland security.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has taken several steps to increase inclusion and accessibility in apprenticeship programs. According to DOL, between 2017 and 2019 the number of apprentices who identify as having a disability increased 550%.  Research shows that participation in apprenticeship programs produces a number of benefits for students with disabilities, including experience, employability skills and nationally recognized credentials. An apprenticeship can be a viable career pathway for more than 1.3 million young people with a disability between the ages of 16 and 24.

States are increasingly enacting policies engineered to increase the inclusion and engagement of youth with disabilities in apprenticeship programs. Below are a few examples:

  • New Jersey’s Youth Transition to Work (YTTW) Program provides multiple financial incentives for employers hiring youth apprentices, with an emphasis on targeted industries such as health care, information technology or public service.
  • Louisiana’s Postsecondary Apprenticeship Pilot for Youth (PAY Check) is a three-to-five semester program that allows transition age youth with disabilities to take classes at Delgado Community College related to specific apprenticeship areas, participate in career development activities, learn community and work skills, and gain employment experience through a paid apprenticeship at the University Medical Center.
  • Oregon’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Plan specifically outlines identified issues and how agencies can strategize to make apprenticeships more inclusive and useful in the state.

Apprenticeship programs are a proven way for individuals to discover exciting career pathways and for states to secure employment for their workforces. Be sure to check out National Apprenticeship Week events happening near you