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By Kevin Damask, staff writer with the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired

As we take this month to recognize employment diversity, it’s important to highlight the significance of inclusivity in the workplace.

The U.S. Department of Labor has created the theme #InclusionWorks to honor disability employment awareness in October. National Disability Employment Awareness Month celebrates the contributions of employees with disabilities and provides education about the value of a diverse workforce that includes their skills.

Steve Johnson, First Vice President of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired Board of Directors, has advocated for workforce inclusivity for many years. Johnson, a former Council scholarship recipient, has served on the board since 2012.

After being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when he was 6 years old, Johnson lost his sight in his early 20s. In 1991, he received a kidney/pancreas transplant that he says saved his life.

“I’m very, very fortunate to have received a second chance at life and to give back to the community in a much bigger way,” Johnson said. “Someone gave their life to help me live. This is a small token of my appreciation to help others in some way, too.”

After completing a degree in community health education, Johnson became passionate about disability workforce awareness.

“One of my major goals was to really educate the greater community about disability. That led me to a position with our regional independent living center (in La Crosse,) and that’s when I really got a foothold on so many things,” Johnson remarked. “I have a very strong background in disability rights.”

Johnson, who works in transportation services for La Crosse County, said there are many factors that persons with disabilities should consider when pursuing employment.

“I continue to see that many people who have vision loss don’t realize that they can work,” Johnson reflected. “The Social Security Administration builds  incentives into their programs to help people enter the workforce. One of the things Wisconsin has, which is very unique, is access to disability and elder benefit specialists who can let people with disabilities know how work would affect them, in terms of benefits.”

Johnson has faced the challenges of living paycheck-to-paycheck. Having the opportunity for employment allows persons with disabilities the chance to experience financial flexibility without losing some of their benefits.

“From my perspective, being able to work has given me so much more than just financial flexibility. It has given me a connection with co-workers.  We build relationships. Psychologically, it’s healthy, and it makes me feel like I’m giving back,” Johnson said. “In my position, I feel good when I help people find transportation-- one of the greatest challenges for persons with disabilities.”

While disability inclusion in the workplace has come a long way, Johnson said there is still plenty of room for improvement. He noted that the Social Security Administration has implemented many programs with mixed results.

“The first thing I would like to see is leveling the playing field,” Johnson said. “When we look at persons who are blind or visually impaired versus those who are not, there’s a big gap in incentives. I would like to see everyone have the same benefits. I believe that would encourage more individuals with disabilities to really look into getting back into the workforce. We all want Social Security to remain solvent.  That only improves when we have more people in the workforce.”