Businesses have a blind spot about recruiting and hiring people with disabilities, says Neil Romano, former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).
That blind spot comes from “a legacy of misunderstanding” based on outdated notions that hiring persons with disabilities is a charitable cause rather than an integrated part of an overall business plan, he said during the Sept. 1, 2009, webinar presented by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) and the U.S. Business Leadership Network.
Persons with a disability are much better educated than was the case 30 years ago and they benefit from technology that allows them to compete in the job market, Romano said.
And innovations benefiting persons with disabilities, such as using Second Life capabilities and telecommuting, ultimately benefit everyone, Romano said, noting there have been technological advances that didn’t exist as recently as February 2009.
In one example SHRM Online found online, IBM in June 2009 announced a new service—Virtual Collaboration for Lotus Sametime or Sametime 3D—that allows users to use avatars to set up and securely use virtual meeting spaces behind the firewall and communicate through text and voice, take notes with visual flipcharts and share ideas on a “brainstorm wall.”
Romano is CEO of Integrated Process Solutions, founder of America’s Strength Foundation, and served on the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities from 2006-2008. He has served on a number of diverse boards of directors, including United Cerebral Palsy of Central Maryland.
During the webinar, “Helping Business Incorporate the Value of People with Disabilities into Their Bottom Line,” he made the business case for hiring persons with disabilities:
- Persons with a disability make up a large talent pool employers can tap into.
- Persons with a disability make up an often overlooked market segment—they and their network represent $2.4 trillion dollars in discretionary spending in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
- 92 percent of the American public is more favorable toward companies that hire people with disabilities and 87 percent would prefer to do business with such companies, according to a 2005 national report Romano co-authored.
Many organizations are looking for a 1 percent to 2 percent increase in business, and “here is a segment of the population that businesses can invest in and benefit from,” Romano observed.
Many employers believe persons with disabilities are sickly, according to Romano.
“People with disabilities have disabilities,” said Romano, who has dyslexia. “It doesn’t mean they’re sickly; it doesn’t mean their health costs are going to go up and kill your [coverage] pool.”
Other myths: fear of litigation and a fear that accommodating an employee with a disability is costly, concerns mentioned in ODEP’s November 2008 report, Survey of Employer Perspectives on the Employment of People with Disabilities.
“[Cost of accommodation] is something that gets raised all the time,” Romano said, “When it is related to people with disabilities in the workplace, it becomes a negative word” and carries the whiff of performing a favor. “Making accommodations for people is nothing more than helping a person do their job to their full potential” and enhance productivity.
“What kind of business hires anybody and decides not to give them the tools they need to do their jobs effectively 100 percent?” he asked. “You invest in people with disabilities as you would with any other group.”
Research JAN released Sept. 1, 2009, Workplace Accommodations: Low Cost, High Impact, found more than half of U.S. employers surveyed had zero accommodation cost; the remaining 34 percent typically spent approximately $600 to accommodate an employee with a disability.
JAN’s ongoing study was conducted January 2004 through December 2006 with 1,182 U.S. employers and June 2008 through July 2009 with 366 U.S. employers.
Romano advised employers to centralize their accommodation funds and treat them as an investment in time and intellectual capital. After all, any employee at any moment could develop a disability and require an accommodation, he observed.
A Success Story
Romano pointed to the Anderson, S.C. distribution center Walgreens built in 2007 as an example of a universally accessible center whose benefits extend to all its employees. Large enough to hold 11 regulation football fields and enough merchandise to service 800 Walgreens stores, it’s accessible to people with sensory, physical and cognitive disabilities.
The center operates a “real work for real pay” competitive employment environment where performance standards must be maintained and jobs include management positions, according to a Walgreens press release. Its web site incorporates audio messages, photos, video and a large-print text option to depict jobs and work life at the center.
Not every business has its own distribution center, but does have its own job application process.
“If there is any one investment that needs to be made … make sure your application process is as inclusive as it can be,” and hold recruiters to a higher standard to make sure persons with disabilities are not being excluded as potential applicants, Romano said.
He urged vocational rehabilitation groups to move away from the mindset that hiring persons with disabilities is the charitable thing to do. Instead, rehab representatives should meet with hiring managers at other organizations to discern their areas of high employment needs and determine how its talent pool can address those needs.
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.
Attitudes on Hiring Those with Disabilities Has Shifted—Slowly, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Sept. 4, 2009
Data on Unemployed People with Disabilities Available, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, February 10, 2009
Study Compares Costs, Benefits of Employees with, Without Disabilities, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, March 4, 2008
Employing Persons with Disabilities, SHRM Research, July 20, 2009
DOL/SHRM Partnership, SHRM Government Affairs News, March 20, 2007
Quick Link: Job Accommodation Network