By Anne Evenson
“See the person, not the label.”
Dr. Temple Grandin, Doctor of Veterinary Science, Author, and Autism Rights Activist
On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. This landmark civil rights legislation prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and guarantees equal access to all public resources in areas including employment, education, transportation, public accommodations, communications and state and local programs and services.
Thirty years later, there are over 61 million adults in the United States who live with a physical or intellectual disability. Twenty-six percent of the adult population have mobility, sensory, cognitive or psychiatric impairments. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women and two in five adults age 65 years and older have a disability. As of August 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that 4.7 million veterans have a service-connected disability, assigned by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Although the ADA allowed people with disabilities to enter the workforce with the requirement of reasonable accommodations and protection against discrimination related to their disability, one in four American adults continues to face barriers to employment. The 2019 Annual Report on People with Disabilities in America published by the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, shows that “in 2018, the employment-to-population ratio for people with disabilities was 37.5%,” compared to the “employment-to-population ratio of people without disabilities,” which was 77.8%. This employment gap of 40.3% clearly shows how underrepresented people with disabilities are in our workplaces.
It’s Time to Overcome Misconceptions About Hiring People with Disabilities
People with disabilities make up 6.5% of the current American labor market. That’s 10.7 million people with diverse talents, leadership styles and experience who want to work and can help companies thrive and succeed. So, why do many organizations resist hiring people with disabilities?
Many employers have misconceptions about people with disabilities related to their capabilities and the accommodations they might require. They incorrectly assume that they’ll need someone with specialized expertise to implement costly modifications. Others presume that people with disabilities are only capable of performing menial jobs, or that they won’t be able to perform well in their new role.
Nearly 60% of people hired required no additional costs for accommodations, while the remainder averaged around $500 per person with a disability as a one-time expenditure. Employers are encouraged to remember that all people are individuals, and the best way to proceed is to ask what accommodations someone might need rather than assuming complexity as a matter of course. In many situations, a person may need what every employee needs: a straightforward job description that outlines roles and responsibilities, clear performance expectations and consistent, meaningful feedback.
Employers should also consider adding accessibility features early on so that retrofitting or rebuilding may not be necessary for the future. Many modifications may turn out to be improvements for everyone. A coworker who is hearing impaired might be unable to participate in a classroom-style training program but is more than capable of taking a virtual training class. Perhaps it’s more efficient for everyone to complete their training online. It’s critical to remember that the limitations we impose on others are often just obstacles in our minds, and many are easily adapted. Organizations should remain cognizant of workplace accommodations and support for all workers.
Research Shows that Hiring People with Disabilities Elevates Your Organization
A 2018 joint research report produced by Accenture, the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN reveals that organizations that employ and support more people with disabilities outperform organizations that do not. They report a 28% increase in revenue and a 30% rise in profit margins. Additionally, the Department of Labor found that companies that focus on disability inclusion saw a 90% improvement in employee retention.
In addition to increased market share and economic gains, research shows that recruiting people with varied abilities, skills and intelligence offers employers incentives like greater innovation, elevated productivity and enhanced reputation. People with disabilities often use creativity to adapt to the world around them and have developed many of the attributes necessary for innovation, including problem-solving, tenacity, foresight and a willingness to experiment. Studies also show that people without disabilities who work alongside people with disabilities develop more empathy, compassion and tolerance for all their colleagues. Embracing the benefits of people with different abilities as a business practice, rather than just complying with federal regulations or as a perceived obligation, results in favorable employee attributes like enthusiasm and loyalty.
“Individuals with developmental disabilities contribute to a healthy work culture through their dedication and positive attitude,” says Sarah Stuckel, Vocational Director for the Mingus Job Accelerator, a vocational training program for individuals with developmental differences. “The pride and joy an individual with intellectual disabilities feels while restocking shelves or helping a customer is contagious!”
Foster an Inclusive Environment in Your Organization
There are many ways that employers can create diverse, inclusive work environments. First, hire more people with disabilities and establish consistent standards and processes to support them. Provide accessible tools and training so employees with disabilities can perform their jobs to their fullest abilities.
Build awareness through disability education programs and employee grassroots efforts. Offer all employees disability awareness and etiquette training, so everyone can show respect and sensitivity to people with disabilities by understanding the various ways they communicate, move around and interact with the world around them. Encourage employees to use “person-first language,” a linguistic formula that refers to the person first and the disability second. Person-first language helps colleagues avoid marginalizing or dehumanizing each other (either consciously or subconsciously).
Create opportunities for diverse talent to fill roles at all levels. Larger organizations are encouraged to establish departments dedicated to diversity and inclusion so that employees feel respected and know their voices matter. Empower all employees by offering mentor and mentee possibilities, and support employees who are caregivers for family members with disabilities.
“An organization that employs someone with a disability communicates a message of not only diversity but recognition and acceptance,” says Stuckel. “All of this leads to a beneficial environment for all employees and customers.”
The Future of Diversity & Inclusivity in the Workplace
From its earliest days, IBM has been designing accessible products like Braille printers and typewriters intended to help people with disabilities achieve their full potential. Since the company hired its first employee with a disability in 1914, IBM has been a leader in implementing human resource (HR) policies aimed at creating an accessible workplace. Today IBM remains a champion for diverse talent with programs like the Accessible Workplace Connection, an online portal that helps managers accommodate employees with disabilities by teaching them about the tools and policies in place which help them do their jobs.
In 2019 Northrup Grumman earned 100% on the Disability Equality Index (DEI) for the fifth year in a row and was named a “Best Place to Work for Disability Inclusion” for their outstanding commitment to leading disability inclusion practices. Northrup Grumman uses the DEI to measure key performance indicators across areas of their organization, including employment, culture, leadership, accessibility, community engagement, support services and supplier diversity.
Ernst & Young understood that “to drive sustainable growth in the 21st century,” they needed to identify new sources of talent. They recognized that while many people on the autism spectrum are intelligent, educated and keen to work, they often face interpersonal challenges that make access to employment difficult. A study by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University found that 58% of young adults with autism remain unemployed. In 2016, Ernst & Young launched a pilot program to scout and hire neurodiverse candidates in Philadelphia called the Neurodiversity Center of Excellence. They discovered that neurodiverse individuals excel in innovation and efficiency, which increased productivity. Leadership observed more effective communication between managers and their teams as they adapted to the different communication styles of their autistic colleagues.
Successful organizations know that great ideas come from the diversity of thought, experience, background, culture, gender, race, age and many other factors. Hire people with disabilities, and you’ll find out first-hand what an incredible asset they are!
We want to thank Sarah Stuckel for suggesting this exciting and vital topic for our blog. Sarah’s little brother, Daniel, has Down Syndrome and was the driving force behind her passion for supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). After earning a master’s degree in Special Education from Texas Christian University, Sarah worked for Daymark Living, a community for adults with IDD in Waxahachie, Texas. In her role as Resident Life Manager, Sarah initiated partnerships with organizations in her community to encourage employment opportunities for people with IDD.
“Daniel is one of the hardest working people I know, and he greets every opportunity to work with energy and enthusiasm,” says Stuckel. “I knew this approach to work was not just embodied by Daniel, but by his peers and friends as well. I view any company that employs someone with a disability as fortunate because they have the opportunity to work with this incredible population.”
Sarah has continued to work with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities for the past 15 years.
Anne Evenson is a marketing specialist and copy editor working in Austin, Texas. She holds a BFA in Fibers and Printmaking from the Kansas City Art Institute.
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