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Climbing the Steel Wall
Climbing the Steel Wall


There is an unaddressed issue looming over boardrooms and clusters of office cubicles, over restaurants and cellphone sales kiosks, over the workplace wherever it may be in America. Nearly one in ten workers in the United States is the parent of a child with a disability. Furthermore, of those children with disabilities, approximately 11% of 8-15 year olds have a mental health disorder serious enough to interfere with their daily lives (Wankoff, Rosenzweig, Brennan).

Unfortunately, for some there exists in the American workplace a stigma attached to being the parent of a disabled child. And because of this perceived stigma, parents of children and youth with disabilities will often keep this information from their employers. Perhaps more seriously, the workplace support systems for these parents are woefully underdeveloped, where they exist at all. To put it plainly, the lack of awareness of, and support for employees caring for children with disabilities costs employers and employees time, money, and efficiency, and is detrimental to the health of families and businesses alike.

Fortunately, researchers at Portland State University, in a partnership forged in-part by efforts of the office of Innovation & Intellectual Property at PSU, have developed a method for increasing workplace awareness and support for workers who provide care for children with disabilities. Dr. Julie Rosenzweig, Professor in the School of Social Work and Dr. Eileen Brennan, Research Professor with the Research and Training Center on Pathways to Positive Futures, have created a Human Resource (HR) training program and manual that they have “designed to bridge the gap between the workplace needs of employed parents of children and youth with disabilities and the business objectives of companies” (Wankoff, Rosenzweig, Brennan).

Children/Youth with Disabilities: Their Parents Are Your Employees is a training manual and workbook for HR professionals authored by Doctors Rosenzweig, Brennan, and other collaborators. The information covered in the workbook is the product of more than 15 years of research with families raising children with disabilities, workplace supervisors, and HR professionals. Together they form part of a broader platform designed by researchers at the Work-Life Integration for Families with Children & Adolescents Who Have Emotional or Behavioral Disorders Project with the goal of improving workplace policies and practices with regards to families of children with disabilities. A few years ago this platform was put into practice in a partnership between KPMG LLP, an international audit, tax, and advisory firm, and a team from the School of Social Work at Portland State University led by Rosenzweig and Brennan.

Over the course of a two-part session, 56 HR professionals from KPMG offices across the United States participated in Dr. Rosenzweig’s and Dr. Brennan’s training program, gaining essential knowledge about the physical, developmental, and mental health disabilities children experience, the work-life integration experiences faced by parents of children with disabilities, and strategies and solutions for bridging the needs of employers and employees. The training sessions, conducted by Doctors Rosenzweig and Brennan, were designed to increase the confidence of KMPG HR staff in terms of working with employees who have children with disabilities. While their training program was conducted with HR professionals, Doctors Brennan and Rosenzweig believe their training can benefit everyone.

“We want to address as many audiences as we can with this work,” Dr. Rosenzweig said. “There is the workplace audience: the HR professionals who can implement the training, and there are parents who have vulnerable children with disabilities—parents who are often at risk of falling below the poverty line if they are unable to sustain work because of the needs of their children, but we also have policy-makers in mind, the people who have the capability of fundamentally addressing this issue from the top down.”

“That’s certainly one of the places we feel we can have the most impact,” Dr. Brennan added. “The obstacles to overcome are daunting, and U.S. policies on this issue are inadequate. Right now we have the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but that doesn’t provide any assurance that employees taking leave won’t lose their job or pay. Taking time off work to care for a child in crisis can cause a great deal of hardship for parents.”

Supporting families of children with disabilities is a task Doctors Rosenzweig and Brennan have been working on for most of their careers. Dr. Brennan likens the work of getting out the word on this particular work-life issue to trying to climb a slippery steel wall.

“Training is one thing,” Dr. Rosenzweig said, “but we need to get people interested in the issue.”

“We’re hoping we can get the information to everyone,” Dr. Brennan added. “There’s still so much more to be done.”

Here in the Office of Innovation & Intellectual Property we hope we can continue to help Doctors Brennan and Rosenzweig achieve their goal to increase the workplace awareness of and support for the working parents of children with disabilities. For more information on Doctors Brennan’s and Rosenzweig’s training platform, workbook and manual, and their project with KPMG LLP you can read an article, “Building Layers of Support At KPMG LLP,” at

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted June 18, 2012