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Time to Educate and Employ Persons with Disabilities7 min read

Time to Educate and Employ Persons with Disabilities

I had the pleasure to interview Tanya Sheckley of UP ACADEMY located in San Mateo, CA on my Show – Human Potential at Work.  UP ACADEMY is an elementary lab school for the inclusion of students with physical disabilities.  Tanya’s passion for starting the school was her amazing daughter Eliza Sheckley.  Eliza was born with great potential, many abilities, and Cerebral Palsy. Learn more about their story and UP ACADEMY at

Tanya Sheckley, Photo Credit Brian Orlov

All over the world corporations are trying to be more diverse and inclusive.  Diversity and Inclusion are the new buzzwords for corporations and human resources.  Everyone is looking for a more equitable workspace, for different perspectives and trying to create initiatives to broaden their knowledge base.  Employers are seeking creativity, new perspectives, productivity, and retention, many studies have shown that persons with disabilities are as productive as their non-disabled peers. In my book, Tapping Into Hidden Human Capital ( we discuss this topic at length. 

Business’s perspectives on the scope of the community of Persons with Disabilities has evolved as demographics have become more comprehensive.  For many years in the United States – and still today in many countries – census methodologies minimized the actual numbers of persons with disabilities by utilizing medical types of questions that most people did not respond to accurately.  However, recent data collection utilizing functional definitions (things that people can or cannot do in their everyday life) rather than medical definitions, have vastly expanded the breadth and depth of data available. 

Those new census data also give a more realistic assessment of the number of persons living with disabilities.  As a result, companies all around the world recognize the imperative to develop their capacity to market to, employ, and serve persons with disabilities and the aging market.   It is also important to note that 1 in 4 Americans identify as having a disability according to the CDC.

Our world is changing, autonomous technology is growing, AI use is growing, jobs we used to take for granted, entry-level positions, are being done by computers, or robots.  And it’s not just entry-level jobs, surgery is being done by robots!  We need a diverse and innovative workforce to see the next solutions and create to meet them.

The graduation rate for individuals with disabilities hit 65.5 percent for the 2015-2016 school year, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.  The national graduation rate for all high schoolers reached a record high of 84.1 percent.  There’s almost a 20% difference between students with and without disabilities. 

According to NAEP test results, only 25% of 12th graders are proficient in math and only 37% are proficient in reading, that alone should be alarming, the US is graduating a majority of students who are not proficient in core subjects.  Among these test results, students with disabilities score an average of 30 points lower than their typical peers, making their proficiency levels even lower.  As a nation, we are not providing an adequate education to our nations disabled youth, making it difficult for them to attain higher degrees and gainful employment.

It starts in kindergarten.  It starts with the expectations that we have of our students.  Tanya Sheckley of UP ACADEMY in San Mateo, CA often talks of the expectations gap.  It came to light while she was seeking education for her daughter who happened to have cerebral palsy.  When she was asked before kindergarten if her daughter would stay until she was 18 or 22 (students with disabilities can often stay in their school districts longer) she laughed and commented that she would graduate at 17 and go to Stanford.  She wasn’t joking.  Three years later the school district again asked in a meeting for her educational goals.  There weren’t any set in her individualized education plan.  Again Sheckley stated that her goals were the same as every other kid in her class, to get a good education and go to college.  The educational team didn’t know how that could be possible.

Eliza Sheckley and friends

Let’s take a step backward and assume her daughter Eliza was typical.  She was reading in the top half of her class, she was doing math in the top quarter of her class, the educational team comes to the family and expresses worry for her educational goals and says that graduation and college may not be possible for your very bright, well-focused student.  What?!?!  That wouldn’t happen.  Why do we have lower expectations for our students with disabilities?  What would happen, how would they perform, if we expected more?

These questions led Sheckley to open UP ACADEMY, an elementary lab school for the inclusion of students with physical disabilities.  A school where all students’ have the same expectations, a school where students physical challenges are supported through a rigorous academic curriculum based on student inquiry and project-based learning.  A school where all the students are working together.  Students inherently learn universal design skills, they learn the value and capabilities of all people, they learn to see the world from multiple perspectives both from working with peers of all abilities and also from learning a second (or third) language and culture.  They are learning the skills that the World Economic Forum 2022 Skills Outlook says they will need: creativity, analytical thinking, and emotional intelligence.


As our world changes, our education needs to change to produce the leaders and workers we will need.  The world’s largest minority, over 15% of the population, one billion+ people need to be a part of that conversation, we need workers with disabilities engaged in STEAM, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics.  People with disabilities should be training to engineer, design, program and maintain AI, working with autonomous technology and other new technologies like robotics and wearables will all this community to focus on their abilities to innovatively do the jobs as they continue to evolve. 

Employees with disabilities are like every other employee. There is no mystery to successfully employing persons with disabilities. Employers all over the world are successfully hiring and retaining employees with disabilities. Remember, disabilities may be a part of the life journey for many of your employees. When you create solid policies, standards, and processes to successfully employ and retain persons with disabilities, everyone wins.

Employers that focus on each of their employee’s abilities instead of their disabilities will win each time. Additionally, as the global marketplace continues to demand that persons with disabilities are included in all aspects of society, your firm will reap the benefits of full inclusion.

Debra with her daughter Sara Ruh

Companies of all sizes are trying to figure out how to assure the public that they are socially responsible corporations. Hiring a diverse workforce that includes talented persons with disabilities is one way to accomplish your goals. Hiring individuals with disabilities in your workforce makes good business sense and adds value to your bottom line.

Employers invest a lot in their human capital. Invest in human capital that includes and accommodates employees with disabilities and you will be able to tap into a creative, loyal, productive and diverse workforce.  To meet the employers needs to hire our community we need a well-qualified, educated, diverse and inclusive workforce and that starts in Kindergarten.

To learn more about UP ACADEMY please visit:

About the Authors

Debra Ruh

Debra Ruh

Chief Executive Officer

Debra Ruh is the CEO of Ruh Global IMPACT.  The UN President’s office invited Debra to address the United Nations General Assembly at the Conference of State Parties 9th session on May 13, 2016.  Selected as the North American representative for UN ILO Global Business and Disability Network (GBDN). US State Department global speaker and ambassador since 2018. Nominated as Global Goodwill Ambassador in 2018.  Author of three books, Inclusion Branding (available in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Voice via Audible), Tapping into Hidden Human Capital, and Finding Your Voice using Social Media.  Learn more at or

She is a global influencer, with over 300,000 followers on social media. Co-founder of award winning #AXSChat one of largest tweet chats in the world with over 8 billion tweets. Named in the “Top 5% of Social Media Influencers” and “Top 0.1% of people talking about Disability Inclusion and Accessibility” by KLOUT, #15 in Digital Scouts, and Top 100 Global Digital Influencers in Sept 2018.  Debra has been featured on CBS, ABC, NBC, Washington Post, INC, Entrepreneur, Forbes, Huffington Post, NY Times, Christian Science Monitor, and more.

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