Attorney and disabilities activist John D. Kemp has metal hooks for hands and prostheses for legs, but his abilities far outweigh his disability—and he wants employers to keep that in mind when it comes to hiring and retaining people like him.
That was his message during a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Disabilities Advisory Council presentation to staffers Nov. 10, 2010.
An employer shouldn’t have to make a business case for hiring people with disabilities any more than an employer would to justify hiring women, or blacks or other minorities, said Kemp, who has been honored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the national disability community for his work on behalf of people with disabilities.
“You are hiring people who are problem solvers” because of the way they live, he said.
“I think sometimes we get too caught up in process,” he continued. “If the person can deliver the goods on time, with quality, within cost, then what’s the problem with how they do their job?”
Kemp was born without arms and legs, but when he was a child growing up in Bismarck, N.D., his dad made him walk to school like the other kids. He played sandlot sports, was active in Cub Scouts and had a paper route. And in 1960 at age 10 he served as the national Easter Seals poster child.
Today he is a husband and father and serves as a principal in the law firm of Powers, Pyles, Sutter, and Verville PC in Washington, D.C. His areas of specialization include disability, rehabilitation and health care, and he has served on numerous boards that address disability issues.
Getting a Seat at the Diversity Table
Diversity is on the radar of many companies, many of which employ a staffer dedicated to working on diversity issues. Some firms recruit from various demographic groups and offer employee resource groups to meet different needs. Yet disability is a small blip on that radar screen, according to Kemp.
“Even though it’s 2010 and diversity programs are thriving, disability … [is] not very well addressed in these [diversity] programs,” said Kemp.
He cited findings from the 2010 Survey of Employment of Americans with Disabilities from the Kessler Foundation/National Organization on Disability. It was conducted in March and April 2010 and reflects responses from 411 HR managers and senior executives at U.S.-based companies that employ 50 or more workers.
As SHRM Online has reported, Kessler found that just 25 percent of those surveyed have a disability policy and 12 percent have a disability program, as defined by the survey. Eight percent have a policy and a program. Existing disability programs are concerned primarily with creating or improving the reasonable accommodation process or offering awareness training, the survey found.
While corporate leaders recognize the importance of hiring people with disabilities and for the most part don’t perceive it as cost prohibitive, “most are not hiring many people with disabilities, and few are proactively making efforts to improve the employment environment for them,” Kemp said, citing the survey’s executive summary.
The small percentage of people with disabilities that are being hired is “outrageous,” he said, particularly when one considers that hiring such individuals allows them to be productive members of the workforce and can remove their dependency on state and federal programs, he said.
Then there are the job interviewers who, even in the 21st century, ask inappropriate or presumptive questions of candidates with apparent disabilities. Some presume that the disability will make it difficult for the job seeker to handle the job, he said.
“I can’t imagine how you do this stuff so I guess you can’t” is their attitude, said Kemp, a man who ties his own ties with his prosthetic hooks. “People in my office help me get a cup of coffee,” he noted, but, “I’m the guy who makes the phone calls, writes the letters.”
Disabilities make some people uncomfortable, he noted. Some people will look at the sky and start whistling, trying to avoid eye contact when they see him approach on his scooter. Others, in a misguided attempt to make a connection when they meet him, will talk about how they have a friend or relative who is disabled, said Kemp. That, he said, is like a white person telling a black person that he or she has a black friend.
Even people with a disability might not admit to themselves that they are part of the disability community, he said, and often they don’t self-identify as such with an employer.
“I’ve known from the get go that I’m a person with a disability, but there are people who have aged slowly into a disability,” he said. “They fight it and they resist and don’t want to be known as a person with a disability.”
Disability always will be a new experience to most people, whose frame of reference often is inaccurate portrayals in the media, he said. He pointed to the Golden Globe-nominated TV show “Ironside” that aired 1967-1975 as an example. Raymond Burr, chief detective for the San Francisco Police Department, is immobilized by a sniper’s bullet but continues to solve crimes from a wheelchair. Miraculously, Kemp noted, the character was never stymied by a lack of curb cuts or stairs he couldn’t access. He breezed around town in his customized van and relied on an assistant to push his chair and drive the van.
Kemp challenged persons with disabilities to do their part to break down attitudinal barriers by volunteering in a non-disability field, serving on a board dedicated to disability issues, participating in community theater, attending sporting and cultural events, traveling to a foreign country or running for office.
The United States can’t thrive, he noted, without having people with disabilities as an integral part of the economy and workforce.
Kathy Gurchiek is a senior writer for SHRM.
Survey: Companies Have Scaled Back Disability Hiring Programs, SHRM Disciplines, Diversity, Oct. 25, 2010
SHRM’s Disability Employment Resource Page