In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), I want to write a blog about the importance of people with disabilities (PWDs) working in climate-related fields. Among other things, climate jobs present amazing opportunities for a disability community that has disproportionately low levels of employment and income; working in climate can be incredibly empowering for PWDs who are passionate about making a difference in the world; and PWDs can transform climate fields from the inside out, so mitigation and adaptation better meet our community’s needs.
Moving forward, I hope that climate-focused employers improve their hiring and employment practices to better recruit and retain employees with disabilities. I also hope that the entities that empower PWDs – including government agencies, nonprofits, and educational institutions – help the disability community train for and pursue climate jobs, and even create disability-and-climate jobs of their own. And finally, I encourage PWDs to reflect on their own employment journey and realize that they may already be supporting disability climate justice through their work, even if they don’t have a job that’s usually associated with climate change. A Primer on NDEAM First off – let’s talk about NDEAM and why it’s important. Its predecessor started out in 1945, with the first week in October declared (the now-outdated name) “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” This was at least partly sparked by the desire to tap into a labor force of PWDs (including World War II veterans with disabilities) after the US lost so many able-bodied men in the war. By the late 1980s, the name had changed, a week turned into a month, and NDEAM was born. The federal government, state governments, and disability advocates have continued the effort to get more inclusive hiring and employment practices – but there’s still a long way to go. Employers fall short on recruitment, retention, and providing reasonable accommodations; our education system doesn’t adequately prepare many PWDs for gainful employment; and income and asset limits for benefits, plus not enough awareness about ways to navigate benefits and work, prevent many PWDs from pursuing work. The result is a huge discrepancy in levels of work and income: the employment rate for PWDs aged 18-64 (44.5%) is just over half what it is for people without disabilities (78.9%), while median income for PWDs with jobs ($30,885/year) is 70.4% of able-bodied people’s earnings ($43,883/year). We can absolutely narrow those gaps with the right awareness and policies – and the climate sector provides a huge opportunity to move things forward. The Climate Sector and its Impact You might be asking: what even is the “climate sector” and why is it so important? There’s no set definition for the climate sector, but it generally includes things directly related to mitigation and adaptation: for example, environmental protection, renewable energy, resilience planning, infrastructure design, or disaster services. On the other hand, plenty of jobs that aren’t generally considered the “climate sector” address climate change: for example, myriad jobs in the public health sector are important for climate resilience, while economic empowerment can help many people become more resilient to the financial shocks of climate change. This is also a big and growing part of our economy: the US Department of Energy estimates that clean energy jobs alone employ 3.1 million workers in the US and grew at a rate of 3.9% annually in 2023, with that growth outpacing the economy as a whole; the entirety of the “climate sector” is much, much larger and continues to grow as well. Many climate jobs pay quite well and there are available jobs for every skill and ability level. The importance of this collection of industries is obvious when it comes to climate change itself: by reducing emissions, it helps minimize climate-related harms, and by helping us adapt to climate change, it protects lives and well-being. Assorted climate jobs also improve quality-of-life. For example, climate-focused urban planners make getting around town easier for people who cannot or prefer not to drive, while affordable renewable energy can help households save money on utilities. Suffice it to say, this is an important sector that will continue to grow and provide myriad employment opportunities.
Importance of Climate Sector Employment for PWDs
Now, why is this important to the disability community? For those of us that care about employment (after all, it is NDEAM), the climate sector provides a huge collection of jobs for people with disabilities of all skill, ability, and knowledge levels. Someone with a disability who cares about climate, but doesn’t feel like a climate expert, can still find a job that fits their skills (such as an accountant, social media manager, or salesperson) in a climate focused employer – and thus make a difference by supporting that employer’s mission. For people with disabilities who can do manual labor, there are many construction, delivery, environmental remediation, and other manual-labor jobs available. And those of us who feel knowledgeable about climate change can pursue jobs in management, communications, nonprofit or business strategy, or consulting. There are also a growing number of climate justice organizations and jobs out there, which can create opportunities for PWDs to support climate justice in general and further climate disability justice specifically. Climate jobs are available at all income levels, but often provide generous salaries and benefits, which can drastically improve quality-of-life for workers with disabilities.
There’s another big benefit of PWDs working in the climate sector: what I call changing things from the inside out. When PWDs work in any industry, we often bring insights that can help that industry better support the disability community. We sometimes bring up insights about disability and accessibility in our professional interactions – in meetings, at conferences, or just at the water cooler – in ways that can improve products, services, and entire industries for the disability community. (And sometimes that simply means ensuring that things are fully accessible and don’t leave us behind). We may have a job where we can do our own project or product development, and could design a climate project or product that especially helps PWDs. Despite some momentum on disability climate justice, there is still a huge need for more awareness, accessibility, and inclusion; the more PWDs work in the climate sector, the faster that change will come about.
Many stakeholders can help increase employment in the climate sector, in various ways. Among other things, climate employers should include disability in their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts and actively work to hire, train and retain PWDs. Agencies and nonprofits focused on disability employment should put extra emphasis on the climate sector, whether that’s in job training, raising awareness about employment opportunities, or actively helping PWDs find and apply for open positions. Schools should continue to prepare students for the climate sector and ensure students with disabilities have equal opportunities to learn and grow. And everyone involved should increase the number of disability-focused positions in the climate sector: PWDs are often the ones to fill these roles given our experience and knowledge, and we can do a lot of good in the right job. Advocates, of course, can help push all these things forward, supporting disability employment and climate justice in the process.
So, let’s get to work! And from all of us here at SOA, hope you have a great NDEAM.