How Senate Race Can Make Historic Mark for People With Disabilities

Did you hear who won the election in Illinois this week? No, not that election. I'm talking about the election for United States Senate. Representative Tammy Duckworth won Illinois' Democratic Senate primary. She represents Chicago's northwest suburbs and had been expected to easily defeat her opponent. She will face incumbent, Senator Mark Kirk, in the general election in November.

What has me particularly intrigued about the Illinois senate race is that it will pit - perhaps for the first time in U.S. political history - two people with severe disabilities who are choosing to speak openly about their disability and how it shapes their lives and policy agendas.

Rep. Duckworth is the first female veteran with a disability to serve in Congress. She lost both legs during the Iraq War when the Blackhawk helicopter she was piloting was shot down. Sen. Kirk continues to recover from a massive stroke in 2012. Both Duckworth and Kirk speak candidly about their disabilities and showcase their stories in campaign materials.

Part of me is delighted that most people are unaware of the historic nature of this election. Perhaps it's an indication that living with a disability is becoming more accepted and it is, therefore, less remarkable that these two public servants are squaring off. But make no mistake. This is absolutely remarkable. Here you have two high-profile politicians with disabilities who have chosen not to hide their disability, as FDR did during his presidency, but rather embrace it. Like the other 56 million Americans with disabilities, they see their disability as part of the human condition and their everyday lives. They are not defined by it, but their experiences that led to their disabilities certainly influence their approach to public policy. Sen. Kirk, for example, has introduced legislation to help stroke survivors and is an advocate for stroke research. Rep. Duckworth has made veterans affairs a major part of her tenure.

By all accounts, this will be a fierce political campaign. I hope, though, that amidst those battles Rep. Duckworth and Sen. Kirk don't lose site of a real opportunity they both have to address a critical and timely issue impacting the disability community. It has to deal with self-disclosure of disabilities in the workplace.

For Duckworth and Kirk, they already have checked that box. But too many employees don't feel comfortable sharing information about a disability with their employer. And that could prove costly if their employer is among the 40,000 federal contractors who do business with Uncle Sam. Without employees identifying that they have a disability, it will be much more difficult for those companies to assess how well they are working toward new federal targets for disability hiring. Those businesses that cannot demonstrate efforts to reach the targets face penalties, including possibly losing federal contracts.

The members of the National Organization on Disability CEO Council, made up of companies that already are leaders in disability inclusion, work hard to create workplace environments where their employees feel comfortable about disclosing their disabilities. It allows managers to ensure their employees can maximize their productivity. And it creates a culture of inclusion that builds trust and support across the enterprise.

So it is my sincere hope that both candidates use their bully pulpits to demonstrate the benefits of speaking openly about one's disability - and at the same time encourage employers to do what's necessary to create work environments that allow their employees to feel safe in making that disclosure. That is a political legacy that will leave a lasting mark.