Interview with SourceAmerica’s President and CEO
Richard Belden talks about disability employment and inclusion in America
It all began with a belief that society could do better for people with disabilities.
When Congress passed the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act in 1971, it was a civil rights gamechanger for disability employment. The act expanded what is now known as the federal AbilityOne® Program, which enables federal agencies to purchase products and services from nonprofit agencies (NPAs) that employ people with significant disabilities. It also established what is now SourceAmerica®, one of two central nonprofit agencies that administer the program and assist with regulatory compliance. During the last fiscal year, over 75,000 people with significant disabilities were employed through SourceAmerica’s NPA network (nearly 40,000 of those were employed through AbilityOne).
Richard Belden joined SourceAmerica as Chief Operating Officer in 2019 and was named President and Chief Executive Officer in 2021. During his tenure, Belden has helped the organization and its NPA network navigate disability employment through the COVID-19 pandemic and national recovery efforts.
Q. When it comes to job opportunities, one might think that because we live in America, everyone has equal access to work. From your vantage point, is that true?
A. Unfortunately, no. We live in a society that generally has good intentions but too often leaves certain groups behind, including people with disabilities. Misconceptions often stem from old mindsets and negative attitudes about ability. At SourceAmerica, we know firsthand that everyone can work. The NPAs in our network cater to people with disabilities by offering on-the-job training, numerous support services and workplace accommodations. Many employees have said that their previous employers did not offer a supportive work environment, which is why some of them may have struggled in previous jobs. We know the value in setting someone up for success from the outset.
Q. What are some other misconceptions about people with disabilities?
A. Not all disabilities are visible. For example, traumatic brain injuries, complications due to cancer, or depression are unseen but very real. While real, these types of disabilities don’t prevent a person from being successful in the workplace. Another misconception involves job accommodations. Employers don’t necessarily have to change the job or incur significant costs to hire a person with a disability. SourceAmerica has a team of productivity engineers that help NPAs refine work processes for their employees with disabilities. Sometimes, small tweaks can make a world of difference in the quality of an individual’s work life.
Q. What might people not know about the federal AbilityOne Program?
A. The program has four key tenets: 1) It offers diverse employment options and career paths; 2) It focuses on personal career success, upward mobility, and community placement; 3) It provides professional development and support services to promote successful employment outcomes; and 4) It’s designed to be person-centered. AbilityOne is geared to meet a person with a disability where they’re at, offering them a job where they can use their talents and abilities. An individual can choose to stay in an AbilityOne job or choose a different employment opportunity somewhere else at any point in time. A little-known fact: During the last fiscal year, the NPAs in our network promoted over 2,700 individuals within their jobs and helped place nearly 5,000 people in jobs outside of the AbilityOne Program. The numbers speak for themselves. AbilityOne is a true employment choice that also offers options and upward mobility.
Q. What surprises people most about the AbilityOne Program?
A. Many people are surprised at the breadth of AbilityOne products and services we can offer our customers. From total facility management and food service to apparel and equipage, manufacturing and development, IT support and more, we can do it. For example, you might not know that the military’s chemical protective over garments and cold weather infantry kits are manufactured by people with disabilities, or that when you call the National Passport Information Center, you’re probably talking to a person with a disability working in a call center. The capabilities of the NPAs and the people that they serve are vast.
Q. How did the pandemic affect disability employment?
A. During the pandemic, as so many people went home and worked from their kitchen table, tens of thousands of AbilityOne workers went to work every day as part of our nation’s essential workforce. They kept our military fed, government offices clean and federal facilities in good repair. They sewed uniforms, stocked the shelves of military commissaries and manufactured Personal Protective Equipment. Even in unprecedented circumstances, people with disabilities continue to prove that they are, and always will be, essential.
Not unlike the rest of the world, the pandemic took a toll on our total workforce numbers. While we anticipate more people with disabilities will be returning to the workforce, it may take some time to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Q. Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is growing in awareness in corporate America. How does disability employment factor into this movement?
A. A growing trend is for companies to set D&I targets, goals, and initiatives. As companies build out what a diverse workplace looks like, people with disabilities should be considered like any other group. These trends will help continue to ensure society includes instead of excludes people.
Q. Where do you see disability employment a decade from now?
A. SourceAmerica’s vision is that every American with a disability has career path and employment choices. I’d love to say that our vision will be fully realized by then, but the reality is there will always be more work to do. SourceAmerica advocates on Capitol Hill to make sure the best interests of people with disabilities and disability employment are considered both now and in the future. We’re also exploring what work itself will look like in another decade and how people with disabilities will fit into that. Remote jobs are now commonplace, and it’s work that people with disabilities can do with little to no job accommodation. We want to continue exploring new lines of business and how we can meet federal and private sector needs as workplace trends evolve and change.
Want to learn more about SourceAmerica? Visit www.sourceamerica.org.