When President Barack Obama mentioned the Special Olympics while describing his lack of skill at bowling during the March 19, 2009, episode of "The Tonight Show," he immediately realized his gaffe and apologized. But his apology resulted in a challenge from Special Olympics: to consider hiring an athlete to work in the White House.
“It is said that a workforce should reflect the society it serves,” says Nadine Vogel, president of Springboard Consulting and parent of two special-needs children. “That should include people with disabilities.”
“The White House should be placing qualified people in the government to do the job that needs to be done,” says Tony Coelho, the former majority whip of the House of Representatives and a primary author and sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “But having a single person at the White House is not very significant,” Coelho told SHRM Online. “We in the disability community have been working since November to get the new administration to appoint people with disabilities throughout the government in all types of jobs, in different agencies of government and at different levels.”
President Obama declared his desire to do just that during a town hall meeting in Los Angeles on March 19. He said he believes it’s important to draw on the capabilities of people with disabilities, not as an afterthought or segregated program, but instead to infuse “every department, every agency, every act that we take with a mindfulness about the importance of persons with disabilities, their skills, their talents, their capacity.”
He has already made some key appointments of people with disabilities:
Kathy Martinez, an internationally recognized disability rights leader specializing in employment, asset building, independent living, international development, diversity and gender issues, is the president’s nominee for Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor.
University of Washington law professor Paul Steven Miller, an expert in disability and employment discrimination law and former commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, will serve as a special assistant to the president and will advise the administration on political appointments.
And Kareem Dale will serve as Special Assistant to the President for Disability Policy, notable as it’s the first time a president has had a special assistant focused exclusively on disability policy. The White House announcement said that Dale, who is partially blind, will have direct access to the president and will coordinate the administration’s efforts to see that people with disabilities are on a level playing field with other Americans.
And that’s what people with disabilities are after.
“I don’t know of any other group in America that wants to pay taxes,” Coelho said. “We want to pay taxes—we want a job.”
Can One Person Make a Difference?
The “invitation” to hire a Special Olympian was issued by the organization’s chairman Timothy Shriver in a March 20 statement. By making such a gesture, he said, President Obama “could help end misperceptions about the talents and abilities of people with intellectual disabilities and demonstrate their dignity and value to the world.”
The question is: Can hiring one employee with a disability accomplish all that?
Hiring one person with a disability to do a real job can make a difference in an organization, Coelho says, because that individual will help others know how to work with someone with a particular kind of disability. And, as the individual proves himself on the job, his co-workers will begin to support him as they would any other co-worker. “Then it becomes easier to bring other people with disabilities in,” he adds.
“I do believe you have to start somewhere, even if that is hiring one person,” Vogel told SHRM Online. “However, as the mom of two children with special needs, I often see what is known as the ‘pity factor,’ which reinforces the notion that they need ‘special’ assistance in order to get a job.”
“Words hurt, and words matter,” Shriver said in his statement, adding that a situation like this is a “teachable moment.”
“When you have someone like President Obama, who clearly supports the disability community, say something of this nature, it becomes evident just how important disability etiquette and awareness training is,” Vogel said, “meaning: How do we get comfortable with our words and actions so that it becomes second nature to do and say the ‘right’ things at the ‘right’ times.”
But others took the comment in stride.
“I pay more attention to someone’s actions than their words,” says Deb Dagit, chief diversity officer at Merck. “Yes, it was a misstatement, but I think there needs to be more visibility for what [Obama] has done prior to getting elected and since he’s been elected.”
That’s why Dagit described the reaction from the disability community as “muted—because so many people know of his track record.”
Taking the First Step
According to the Department of Labor’s 2008 ODEP Survey of Employer Perspectives on the Employment of People with Disabilities, released Jan. 9, 2009, once an employer hires one person with a disability, it is much more likely that the employer will hire other people with disabilities.
But taking that first step can be a challenge.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in February 2009, the U.S. unemployment rate for people with a disability was 14.0 percent, compared with 8.7 percent for people with no disability, not seasonally adjusted. And just 19.8 percent of the disabled population is employed, compared with 64.8 percent of the non-disabled population.
But because many employers have little or no experience with people with disabilities, they might be unaware of the opportunities they are missing out on by ignoring this pool of talent.
For example, according to a National Survey of Consumer Attitudes towards Companies that Hire People with Disabilities, 92 percent of the American public view companies that hire people with disabilities more favorably than those that do not. And 87 percent of the public would prefer to give their business to companies that hire people with disabilities.
The Employer Assistance & Recruiting Network (EARN) web site, a free recruiting resource provided by the Department of Labor, provides employers with information and data about the value of employees with disabilities broken down into six key business topics: return on investment, human capital, innovation, marketing, diversity and social responsibility. The information can be used to help justify an organization’s efforts to recruit workers with disabilities.
In addition, the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) publishes examples of businesses that have benefited from employees with disabilities. For example, Getloaded.com, a Midlothian, Va.-based small business that leverages Internet technology to help trucking companies keep their trucks loaded and moving, has experienced the “disability dividend” firsthand, ODEP reports. Three members of its customer service team have disabilities, and the company’s president, Bryan Jones, says their job performance and organizational commitment surpass expectations “tenfold.”
The costs involved from a recruiting perspective are “minimal compared to the return you get by bringing on excellent employees that help embrace that customer service spirit,” Jones told ODEP. “I really feel like it’s going to be something that’s going to help our company continue to grow.”
Just Like Other Employees
Experts say people with disabilities generally don’t want to be placed in token roles. They want real jobs and want to be treated like any other employee. “We are very aggressive about getting placed in business so we can perform jobs that anyone else can perform,” Coelho adds. “We are not interested in recognition just because of a disability.”
During a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) interview, Steve Hanamura, president of Hanamura Consulting, said some people act as if everything he does—just on a regular day—is inspirational. “That drives me crazy,” he said. “I didn’t do anything; I’m just here.”
“You don’t need a hero,” Dagit says. “You need an informant, someone that is informed about how things work in the community of people with disabilities.” Such an individual can help inform an organization’s strategy and bring credibility, she said.
But even if he is regarded as inspirational by some, Hanamura, who is blind, says it has not translated into promotions or job opportunities.
That’s where employers come in.
Numerous resources are available for employers who are ready to reach out to applicants with disabilities. For example, the Department of Labor has a database of more than 1,900 screened college students with disabilities who are pursuing degrees in fields such as math, business, IT and law and seeking summer and regular employment opportunities. Employers can request unlimited free searches by calling EARN at (866) 327-6669.
“Historically, people with disabilities consistently have experienced difficulties finding employment regardless of the economic climate,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis in a statement. “Providing an internship or first job to someone with a disability can provide a real jump-start in launching a successful career.”
But, as SHRM reported previously, many resources, such as one-stop career centers, which can help employers connect with such candidates, are underutilized by employers.
Such services are not enough, Dagit says.
“If you are expecting to bring people with disabilities into your organization and you don’t have anyone in a senior-level strategic position with a disability in that role, you can expect that you won’t be successful,” she told SHRM Online. “You need someone who can do some heavy lifting and look at the needs of your organization.”
Coelho offers this advice to HR: “Stop looking at their disability and look for their ability.”
By doing so, he says, employers will gain committed workers who will do everything they can to succeed on the job.
“If you take a group of disabled new employees and a group of non-disabled new employees, I will guarantee you that you will have more disabled employees on the job a year later,” Coelho says. The reason he offers? “The job means more to them than most other people.”
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.