The potential contributions people with disabilities can make to the nation’s workforce will be celebrated during Ability Awareness Week from Monday, Oct. 13 through Friday, Oct. 17, at The University of Texas at El Paso.
The annual event will commemorate October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a national campaign that raises awareness about disability employment issues and celebrates the many and varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities.
Organized by UTEP’s Center for Accommodations and Support Services (CASS), Ability Awareness Week will include several free events that aim to increase disability awareness on campus, change attitudes regarding disability and increase campus accessibility. This year’s NDEAM theme is “Expect. Employ. Empower.”
“The opportunities for people with disabilities are actually increasing, but they haven’t been good,” said Bill Dethlefs, Ph.D., CASS director. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17.6 percent of persons with a disability were employed in 2013, compared to 64 percent of people without a disability.
“More needs to be done to change attitudes about hiring people with disabilities,” Dethlefs added. “We changed the mission and vision (of CASS) a couple of years ago, along with our name to reflect not only the importance of degree attainment, but also career development.”
Hearing loss did not stop Corene Seymour, a graduate student in the Master of Rehabilitation Counseling (MRC) program in the College of Health Sciences from earning bachelor’s and master’s of social work degrees from UTEP.
“The minute an employer hears that I have a 60 percent hearing loss, they automatically make assumptions about me that are not true,” Seymour said. “I’m just as good as the next person with the same degree.”
Seymour began interning at CASS in 2011. She is currently a master’s student assistant at CASS, a center on campus that provides free services for students with disabilities, including note taking, sign language interpreting, reader/scribe services, auxiliary aides and adaptive technology. Students must register with CASS and present medical documentation before they can receive services. Currently, CASS provides services to more than 670 students.
Seymour said her experience with CASS piqued her interest in rehabilitation counseling.
“I realized even though I have a disability, I actually am good at working with people with disabilities and I wanted to know more about how to work with the various populations,” she said.
As part of her duties at CASS, Seymour is helping organize several of the week’s activities. The first is the Ability Awareness Week Opening Session from 8:30 to 11 a.m. Monday, Oct. 13, at the Tomás Rivera Conference Center in UTEP’s Union Building East.
A representative from West Corporation will highlight parts of President Barack Obama’s proclamation, in which the president affirmed October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
In the proclamation, Obama urged all Americans “to embrace the talents and skills that individuals with disabilities bring to our workplaces and communities and to promote the right to equal employment opportunity for all people.”
The proclamation will be followed by keynote speaker and disability advocate Burns Taylor, and the presentation of the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) Employer Recognition Awards by Cheryl Fuller, DARS assistant commissioner.
A highlight of the opening session will be the presentation of the CASS Opportunity and Challenge Awards.
“We have a small department but a big mission,” Dethlefs explained. “It’s others on campus who actually allow us to do the job that we’re asked to do. (The CASS Opportunity and Challenge Awards) is one way to recognize the contributions of others.”
This year’s honorees include: Luis B. Morales Jr., Facilities Services assistant director, Staff Ability Advocates Award; Carolyn Mitchell, communication senior lecturer, Faculty Miner Ability Award; Lucy E. Fierro, biological sciences student, Student Emerging Leader Award; Rick Razo, ESC Region 19 project manager, Community Member Diamond Amigo Award; and the Office of University Communications, Web Accessibility Award.
“It’s important that all people, whether they have disabilities or not, are able to access information and services available at the University,” said Frank Duran, director of web usability and design for University Communications. “Access to content is not only essential, it’s the law.”
Other events include sessions such as “Service Animals: A Helping Hand” and “Disability Related Sensitivity and Etiquette Training” on Tuesday, Oct. 14, and a resource fair and sports clinic Wednesday, Oct. 15. Events Thursday, Oct. 16, include educational seminars on how to manage special nutritional concerns, such as food allergies and celiac disease; a Photovoice exhibit titled, “Transformation Toward Universal Design on Campus;” evacuation chair training and a screening of the film Endless Abilities in the Health Sciences and Nursing Building.
The week’s final event will be the Second Annual Interdisciplinary Symposium: Defining the Future in Health Promotion and Disability Outreach.
The symposium will highlight research by students and faculty from the University’s six colleges and the School of Nursing that has improved health outcomes for people with disabilities. The symposium also will feature presentations on outreach efforts by students and faculty that have enhanced services to underserved populations, including people with disabilities.
Laurentis Peterson, a graduate student in the Master of Rehabilitation Counseling program, will talk about the new Rehabilitation Sciences Clinical Teaching Laboratory and the services it provides to assist individuals with disabilities to obtain gainful employment and prepare graduate students to become vocational rehabilitation counselors.
“In order to place individuals in competitive employment settings, the students who work in the lab are certified as job coaches and conduct assessments that help determine strengths and career interests,” Peterson explained. “The lab seeks to provide individuals with disabilities with quality services leading to successful employment and offer rehabilitation counseling master’s students the opportunity to work in a hands-on environment.”
The symposium is open to UTEP students, faculty and staff and community members.
For a schedule of Ability Awareness Week events, visit the CASS website at sa.utep.edu/cass.
Laura Acosta is a writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.