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Opinion

The Podium

Making our work force ‘Boston Strong’

In the months following the Patriot’s Day tragedy, the phrase “Boston Strong’’ has come to represent resiliency, generosity, and compassion. For the hundreds who acquire a disability each year we need to keep that spirit alive in all we do. A critical element to fostering this spirit is enabling the pathways to employment for those who are disabled. The companies that embody this ideal provide powerful examples of how the workplace responds not only to these extraordinary circumstances, but to the ordinary challenges all individuals with disabilities face each working day.

Nearly six months after the Boston Marathon bombing, many of the survivors are returning to work and adjusting to their “new normal.” These are important milestones for these individuals, their families and friends. Returning to work marks yet another step in what for some is a long road to recovery from the terrible attack that shocked the world.

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Among the hundreds injured that day, some of the most visible are those who suffered limb loss as a result of the blast. For many others, the injuries may not be so easy to see — the consequences of traumatic brain injury, burn injuries, internal injuries from shrapnel, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The attention from the media and the public has created an important awareness of those who need to make the adjustment to a new disability.

These survivors are not alone in the acquisition of disability. In fact, slightly more than one out of every four of today’s 20-year-olds will acquire a physical, intellectual, or emotional disability before they retire, according to the Social Security Administration.

We have seen already how important a supportive employment environment can be for those new to a disability with the returning veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 1,500 US service members have lost an arm or a leg in combat, according to a 2012 Huffington Post analysis. More than 16,000 suffered severe, disabling wounds in battle. A staggering 253,330 servicemen and women have acquired traumatic brain injury across the two conflicts.

The acquisition of disability challenges not only individuals and their families, but the businesses and organizations that employ them. For any person recovering from a traumatic injury or illness a large support system is key. An often overlooked piece of that system is their employer and colleagues.

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Under a best-case scenario, these individuals will continue to receive not just help, but the accommodations they may need when they return to the workplace. The law requires companies to make physical and technological changes to help individuals with disabilities perform to the best of their abilities. Furthermore, best practices hold that businesses take steps to foster inclusive workplaces.

These are important requirements. We know that work is a central feature in the lives of both people with and without disabilities. Work not only helps us economically sustain our lives and families, but also gives us a sense of purpose and belonging.

Employers provide accommodations to employees with disabilities every day, which can sometimes be a complex process. In years past, there were few organizational or managerial blueprints to follow. But during the past five years, Massachusetts, under the leadership of Governor Deval Patrick, has worked to become a leader in the advancement of inclusive workplaces and employment options for teens and adults with disabilities. There are many emerging public and private partnerships that are working to both raise awareness as well create job placement opportunities.

The opportunity to raise awareness and increase placements is greater than ever. The energy by those who work every day focused on employment for those with disabilities is beginning to be harnessed in new ways. At the Work Without Limits Raise the Bar Hire! Conference in mid-October companies and agencies will gather to demonstrate the benefits they’ve experienced in hiring people with disabilities. Their experiences go a long way toward dispelling myths and fears associated with words like “accommodation” or “handicapped accessible.” These Massachusetts companies have found that hiring people with disabilities makes good business sense.

For many individuals with disabilities, it can be extremely difficult to find a job. Only about 32 percent of people with disabilities participate in the nation’s workforce, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s compared to nearly 77 percent of working age individuals without such disabilities.

What the return to the working world means to someone adjusting to a disability is probably difficult for most of us to understand. But the support and compassion with which they are treated can be a lesson to all of us, and certainly to employers. People with disabilities, regardless of whether the disability was inherent or acquired, shouldn’t be feared. They should be treated with the respect and understanding we accord our friends and provided the supports that allow them to succeed in the workforce.

When everyone is contributing their talents and abilities to our collective workforce our entire community benefits and that is truly how we can fulfill the promise to always be “Boston Strong.”

Oz Mondejar is vice president of Mission and Advocacy, Partners Continuing Care and Laura Stout, Director of Contract Operations, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts

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