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WNY steps up and speaks out for National Disability Employment Awareness Month

More than 50 Million Americans identify as disabled persons and are working to navigate a challenging workforce.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Disability in America...let's paint the picture.

There are over 50 million Americans who identify as disabled persons. To the naked eye they may not fit the stereotype, but by the federal definition, they are living with one or more substantial impairments that impact major life activities.

Showering, brushing your hair, cooking a meal...going to work...for millions of Americans these routine habits can often times be more than just a challenge or a burden - they can be painful.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month is an important month to raise awareness and talk about the ways we, as a community-at-large, can help level the playing field when it comes to opportunities in the workplace - for everyone, but especially for those who are disabled. 

Todd Vaarwerk is the Chief Policy Officer at Western New York Independent Living and knows the obstacles when it comes to working with a disability first-hand - he has cerebral palsy.

"The broader base of people with disabilities is a lot wider than people expect," Vaarwerk says. "It isn't just a person in a wheelchair or a person who's deaf or a person who's blind. It's a person who has problems getting around their home. It's a person who has problems with fine motor control, it's a person who has problems with keeping one thought in their head at a time."

This year, the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the Department of Labor celebrates 20 years of helping advance opportunity for workers with disabilities across the country. Vaarwerk says, while progress has been made since the start of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 31 years ago, there's still a lot more work to be done to create equal opportunities.

"I'd like to be able to give you good news and say that picture is getting better. But it really isn't. We make some gains, and then we make some losses. I mean, if we look at what COVID did for unemployment, for example, it did worse for us than it did with the general population," Vaarwerk tells 2 On Your Side.

Employment, promotions, pay...it's all a challenge when it comes to living as a disabled person. 

"Not only do we want to be part of a workforce, but we are an essential component of an already existing workforce," Vaarwerk says. "You're a benefit to your place of employment. You're not just there to inspire. You're doing the same things that all the other workers are doing." 

When it comes to navigating the paperwork and process, Vaarwerk says, turn to places like WNY Independent Living that can help.

"There's places you can go. We can help businesses too, get the things people with disabilities need to be and stay employed. We can help you work those things out," Vaarwerk says. "We're going to be the ones who say 'alright, maybe you can do it this way."

If you or someone you know needs help navigating employment as a disabled person please call WNY Independent Living at 1 800 348 8399.

Click here for more disability resources in Erie County.