October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- This month, the U.S. is celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The purpose of highlighting this month is to shed light on the employment of America's disabled workforce. The goal is to enhance and broaden employment opportunities for the disabled, as well as recognize those overcoming their disabilities and contributing greatly to our work force.

A brief history: in 1945, Congress made the first week in October "National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week." In 1962, the word "Physically" was successfully removed to ensure that all handicapped individuals were recognized. By 1988, Congress changed the duration to one month and renamed it "National Disability Employment Awareness Month."

The real question is, "what makes this important to us?" As members of the Armed Forces, we don't have people with disabilities working with us ... right? Wrong. There are varying levels of disabilities. They can range from needing glasses to being wheelchair-bound.

As members of the Armed Forces, we need to understand that individuals with disabilities are an invaluable part of our work force. Also, many military members are returning to active duty status after becoming disabled. A prime example of a disabled individual working at full strength is Army Capt. David Rozelle. In 2003 Captain Rozelle lost his foot when his humvee hit a land mine while serving in Iraq. Eighteen months later, he returned to the front lines as the first officer to lose a limb and return to command in Iraq. Not only did he return to the battlefield, but he is able to out run most of his troops. Thus far in Iraq alone, a total of 10 amputees have returned to the fight and 26 have returned to active duty.

How many times have you heard a retiring member say something to the tune of, "when I get out I've got 30 percent disability coming my way?" Chances are they have been working with that disability for quite sometime, whether known or unknown to everyone else. Upon retirement they will be entering the workforce with 54 million disabled working age individuals (ages 18-64) in the U.S., 35 percent of which are currently employed. According to 2004 N.O.D./Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities, two thirds of the 65 percent unemployed want to work, are capable of work, but are unable to find work.

It's no secret, more and more the military is creating civilian positions for jobs previously held by service men and women. One of the preferential characteristics for these positions is previous military service. Why is this important? It demonstrates that a huge portion of our workforce is doing the job and getting it done despite their disabilities. Here at Incirlik, U.S. and local national civilians make up 339 government positions, of which 2.5 percent are officially coded handicapped.

The bottom line is we need to be aware that disabilities are not something to discriminate against. The fact is, hiring an individual for a job or even choosing someone for a particular task should be based solely on the individual's capability to perform the job or task at hand; not on whether or not they are disabled or handicapped. Identifying these issues is what this month is all about.