Willing and Able: Why you should consider hiring people with disabilities
Temple Grandin, renowned autism spokesperson, is known for saying, “The world needs all kinds of minds.” The same sentiment is true for the business world. Hiring individuals with disabilities not only benefits the individual hired, but also benefits your business, employees, customers and the community at large.
Leah Lobato, director of the Governor’s Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities, which is part of the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation, has seen countless lives changed when companies actively recruit and hire disabled workers. She points out that one in five Americans has a disability, and that 30 percent of families have a family member with a disability. She says the numbers are anticipated to increase.
“As we have more Baby Boomers, we’re going to see more age-related disabilities. Also, more people survive situations that they wouldn’t have survived 10 or 15 years ago because of medical advancement,” she says. “Being disabled is the only minority group that anyone can enter at any time. It’s a situation that any one of us could face at any time in our lives.”
A win-win hire
Hiring individuals with disabilities isn’t just a feel-good idea —it can have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line. Individuals with disabilities often bring a diverse range of skills and attributes to the workplace and can enhance the team dynamic.
“Individuals with disabilities have had to problem solve a lot of different situations in their life due to their condition, so they bring a unique perspective,” says Lobato. “Maybe they learn a little differently. Maybe they have anxiety or depression and have had to figure out how to handle stressful situations differently. Maybe they’re autistic and can think differently and outside the box in ways that others would never even imagine. The diversity of people with disabilities and what they bring to a company is really broad.”
Beyond bringing diverse skills to the workplace, Lobato has found that individuals with disabilities often have a strong sense of loyalty to their employers. “Individuals with disabling conditions often either have struggled maintaining or finding employment, or struggle finding work after a gap in employment, so often you’ll find that when they find a good company that is supportive of their disabilities, they’re going to stay with that company and be very good. They’re very dedicated.”
Kristy Chambers, CEO of Columbus Community Center, a nonprofit organization serving adults and teens with disabilities, says individuals with disabilities often fit seamlessly into a company. “When you find that right fit, they become a part of the work culture and they truly can be an inspiration to their coworkers, customers and stakeholders,” she says. “Anyone who has worked with someone with a disability in their work environment can agree that they’re quite inspirational, because they’ve overcome obstacles. It’s a reminder to everyone that good work ethic and enthusiasm is really what makes a good employee.”
Lobato and Chambers agree that having a diverse workforce that includes individuals with disabilities is an attribute that resonates with customers.
“When a customer sees a diverse workforce, it raises their comfort in your business,” says Lobato. “I hear a lot of stories where, ‘I tend to go to that store who has this bagger who happens to have a disability but who is one of the best baggers I’ve ever known.’ Or, ‘I happen to go to that company because I know that they hire individuals with cerebral palsy.’ Those aren’t things that we typically focus on, but [hiring individuals with disabilities] does create an atmosphere of more positive thinking and inclusion.”
Overcoming common fears
Lobato says it’s normal for a business owner or manager to fear the potential consequences of hiring an individual with disabilities, but that misinformation is often the real culprit. “One of the most common issues I run into with businesses I talk to is fear. Fear of disability. Fear of how to communicate with people who have disabilities. Fear of the legal things that might come up when hiring them.”
Lobato acknowledges that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can be overwhelming. She advises companies to seek guidance from her office or a nonprofit, like Columbus Community Center, when beginning to actively recruit disabled individuals.
“The ADA provides a clear definition of what a disability is and provides a clear understanding of what the hiring guidelines are,” she says. “I know businesses look at the ADA and say, ‘I’m afraid of that and I don’t know what it means. If I hire someone with a disability and they aren’t doing their job, what do I do? If I have to fire them, how do I do it?’ What the ADA does is it provides support and protections for a person with disabilities, but it also clearly outlines what a business can and cannot do.”
How to provide reasonable accommodations is one of the most common questions employers have related to ADA compliance, says Kevin Keyes, chief program officer at Columbus.
“There’s greater fear than what should be there about providing reasonable accommodations,” he says. “Studies have shown that the cost of providing accommodations is overestimated. The average cost of accommodations is about $500. In reality, the cost is not that great, especially for the return and benefit that you get.
“A lot of the folks that come into employment with disabilities already have supports in place,” Keyes adds. “That’s what [organizations like Columbus] do. We’re not only there to support the individual, but also the employer. I would say that in most cases, it’s going to be pretty successful.”
Companies with questions about how to create reasonable accommodations can seek guidance from the state, says Lobato. She points to a woodshop created for the Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired as an example of what the state can help with.
“Imagine a high school woodshop, but what you see are individuals working there in the dark with blinding shades on so they get no residual light, and they’re building things—cutting boards, canoes, a guitar—and they’re legally blind or fully blind. … If we can accommodate someone in the woodshop who is blind and working, we can figure out your retail space, your warehouse, your grocery store.”
Beyond state assistance, businesses that actively recruit and hire individuals with disabilities can receive financial aid to help cover associated costs, including work opportunity tax credits, small business tax credits, and grants to establish workplace accommodations and vocational training.
The biggest piece of advice Lobato offers all employers is to treat individuals with disabilities just as you would any other employee. “Clearly document what’s happening and follow any steps that you would with anyone else. Treat them the same as you would any other employees and you won’t run into legal issues.”
Stephanie Mackay, chief innovation officer at Columbus, says employers should view hiring individuals with disabilities as an opportunity to strengthen their workforce—especially considering Utah’s tight labor market.
“Labor data shows us that individuals with disabilities have four times the unemployment rate, so we have a huge labor pool available out there, which is particularly relevant considering Utah has a low employment rate right now. Businesses that are looking for qualified people have a huge labor pool available to them,” she says. “This is really an important economic story to tell. This is a labor force that can lend themselves to helping companies. These people have incredible skills, but they’re skills that are overlooked because we see the disabilities first.”
Chambers points out that communities are the greatest beneficiaries when individuals with disabilities land and keep good jobs. “Employers who get it and understand the benefits of hiring individuals with disabilities realize that they are contributing to the community by hiring somebody who may be more challenged on gaining that employment. This allows individuals to not be a burden on the community, because without employment they become an individual who relies on entitlements. Those who participate on the employer end realize that there’s an economic benefit to everyone—the employee, company and the community at large.”
Utah State Office of Rehabilitation
Work Ability Utah
Americans with Disabilities Act Information
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
ADA Guidelines for Employers:
Employers covered by the ADA have to make sure that people with disabilities:
- have an equal opportunity to apply for jobs and to work in jobs for which they are qualified
- have an equal opportunity to be promoted once they are working
- have equal access to benefits and privileges of employment that are offered to other employees, such as employer-provided health insurance or training
- are not harassed because of their disability
Basic ADA hiring rules:
- The ADA does not allow you to ask questions about disability or use medical examinations until after you make someone a conditional job offer.
- The ADA strictly limits the circumstances under which you may ask questions about disability or require medical examinations of employees.
- The ADA requires you to consider whether any reasonable accommodation(s) would enable the individual to perform the job’s essential functions and/or would reduce any safety risk the individual might pose.
- Once a person with a disability has started working, actual performance, and not the employee’s disability, is the best indication of the employee’s ability to do the job.
- With limited exceptions, you must keep confidential any medical information you learn about an applicant or employee.