How an Innovator for Disability Policy Makes Work More Inclusive

Jennifer Sheehy’s devotion to disability employment has not gone unnoticed. As the Office of Disability Employment Policy’s (ODEP) Deputy Assistant Secretary, she received the 2019 Presidential Rank Award, the Accenture Women in Government “Rising Leader” award, and the Diet Coke/Glamour magazine “Women at Their Best” award.

While recognized for her work in government, Sheehy originally started out in the private sector. When Sheehy first entered the workforce, she worked in marketing with companies like Anheuser Busch. After a spinal cord injury at a pool party in 1994, Sheehy began using a wheelchair. She returned to graduate school after rehabilitation. “Out of business school, I ended up going to the National Organization on Disability, and then joined the Federal Government in 2000,” said Sheehy.

Sheehy reflected on her dual experience of being in the workforce with and without a disability and how it gives her a different perspective.

“Some of us who experience a disability later in life feel lost because we might not have had exposure to services or people with different disabilities before. Now we have better exposure because people with disabilities are more included everywhere,” she said. “For me, it was helpful to have the perspective [of] someone who didn’t have a disability, who worked in the private sector. The contrast of how I was treated, before and after having a disability, led to work with the private sector, trying to change attitudes and help them incorporate inclusive policies,” Sheehy added.

Equity and Bias

When it comes to making workplaces more equitable, we must check our unconscious bias. Sheehy explained that hiring managers may scrutinize the resumes of employees with disabilities more than they would for other candidates. She also mentioned how hiring managers can doubt the abilities of employees with disabilities without letting the employee explain themselves.

“We need to help them get beyond that, so that they let the person with the disability tell them how they’re going to do the job, as opposed to thinking in their heads automatically that the applicant can’t do the job because they haven’t seen a person with a disability do that job,” Sheehy said.

Sheehy believes that these attitudes are one of the biggest factors preventing inclusion in the workplace. However, we can combat these attitudes strategically.

“One strategy to battle the attitudinal barriers is to tell all new employees about the agency’s accommodation policy upfront. You don’t know if someone is disabled or not. Most disabilities are not apparent to the eye,” explained Sheehy. “You also don’t know if someone will acquire a disability in their work life. You want to message an inclusive culture by making sure all employees know that they could get accommodations, and how to do it in an agency, starting at the very beginning of employment and then repeat it at least once a year.”

Spreading Awareness

Sheehy explained that representation can greatly conquer our bias.

“The more we get out information about what people can do, the success stories of people with disabilities in nontraditional jobs and occupations, and share resources, the more people will understand that disability is everywhere,” she said.

Inclusion relies less on perfection from employers and more on effort.

“It’s just a matter of keeping an open mind and understanding that we all have our experiences that may inadvertently create bias. We want to help employers understand how to build and benefit from inclusive workplaces, and feel comfortable having conversations with people with disabilities to understand what supports might be needed to demonstrate their skills and abilities and perform their best — thereby achieving success for themselves and their employers.”

If you want to learn more about tackling unconscious bias, check out the following resources:

Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Job Accommodation Network

Employer Assistance Resource Network on Disability Inclusion