Turning Disability into Business Advantage

By Kylie Hughes April 29, 2011

Ask leading employers what skills and qualities they desire in their workers and you’ll hear phrases like “problem solvers,” “innovators,” “fresh perspectives,” “self-motivation,” “top-level skills” and “loyalty.” Savvy employers are beginning to realize that members of what some call the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the world—people with disabilities—possess just such skills and have access to a wide array of technologies that can help them be productive.

Davida Shensky, for example, has cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects muscle tone, movement and motor skills. She graduated from college some 15 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted. “I had to learn to become my own advocate to receive services for myself,” Shensky told SHRM Online.

After studying rehabilitation counseling and frustrated by a lack of job opportunities, Shensky decided early in her career that her best chance at professional fulfillment would come through self-employment. Today, she runs a career coaching business in Deerfield Beach, Fla., and helps companies and people from all walks of life explore business opportunities beyond their perceived limits.

Shensky’s professional advice is steeped in personal experience. Her disability makes her an expert at innovation and adaptation. Cerebral palsy affects one side of Shensky’s body, meaning that she can type with only one hand. She has adapted by using voice recognition software. That Shensky thinks and learns differently than people without disabilities might have caused her emotional pain as a child trying to fit into an educational system that didn’t appreciate her learning differences. Today, however, Shensky and her clients consider her unique perspective of the world as a business opportunity.

The value of a Different Perspective

Debra Ruh is the CEO and founder of TecAccess in Rockville, Va., a company that works with government and private organizations to ensure that their systems, technologies, products and services are accessible to people with disabilities. Many of TecAccess’ private-sector clients are household names, such as Canon, Dell, eBay, Google, Ernst & Young, Wells Fargo, Best Buy and McDonald’s.

TecAccess employs highly skilled technologists with a diverse range of disabilities to test and develop their clients’ systems and products—the very individuals her company’s services are designed to target. Ruh believes that diversity is one of her company’s greatest competitive advantages.

“We get excited when we receive an application from an outstanding technologist who also happens to be blind,” Ruh explained to SHRM Online. “That’s a huge advantage to us. A blind person isn’t the same as a seeing person with their eyes closed. They think and solve problems differently.

“Likewise, a person can’t sit in a wheelchair and say they know what it’s like to be physically disabled,” she added.

“Our employees with disabilities are often more productive and innovative thinkers. They can solve a problem and get to an outcome very quickly and creatively because they’ve had practice at adapting and solving problems for much, if not all, of their lives,” said Ruh.

In some cases an individual might lack one skill but excel in another.

For example, Ruh said, one of their intern technologists who has Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism, finds it difficult to express herself verbally but has exemplary writing skills.

Business Advantage

Ruh is quick to point out that TecAccess’ clients do not accommodate employees with disabilities out of a sense of obligation. They do so because they gain a business benefit by doing so. “Social responsibility is part of the business case, but people with disabilities also make incredibly loyal, productive, innovative and creative employees,” said Ruh.

Alan Muir, co-founder and executive director of Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (COSD), said he has a long list of high-profile corporate partners who, like TecAccess, are excited to expand their workforce diversity into disability. COSD, headquartered at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is a national association that was formed to provide career services for students with disabilities.

Muir said leading companies are seeking employees who break the mold. “People with disabilities have generally figured out self-accommodation skills, and this is exactly the kind of thing employers are looking for. Employers want to know: How do you problem-solve? How do you think innovatively and creatively? How do you think critically? Do you have a fresh and different perspective?

“Employers who have a serious diversity mandate appreciate diversity in very broad terms. And when you look at the composition of people with disabilities, it’s the perfect diversity rainbow, because everyone is included,” he continued.

“In fact, minority groups, such as African-Americans and Hispanics, are overrepresented in the disability population,” he added. “Many employers miss that connection. They don’t understand that this is a great way to access a deeper group of minority folks who also happen to have disabilities.”

Leverage Technologies

TecAccess relies heavily on social media to recruit workers with disabilities. Ruh said that her company posts job opportunities on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and that the response is positive and overwhelming. Because the disability community is highly fragmented and organized into conditions and/or ethnic and racial groups, Ruh recommended enhancing social media posts with key phrases and hashtags, such as “#disability” and “#disability employment.”

Ruh asserted that the first and most important recruitment step, however, is to ensure that the company’s human resource systems are accessible to people with various kinds of disabilities. “Does your diversity policy truly welcome everyone? Is it supported by processes and procedures that accommodate diversity?” asked Ruh. “Many employers are put off by the thought of what it will cost to accommodate people with disabilities. We’ve found that to accommodate them has been little to no extra expense for us. A lot of employers forget that they already have productive, valuable employees with disabilities working for them—for example, people who have cancer or a heart condition.”

Ruh’s perspective is supported by Chai Feldblum, a commissioner for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who calls herself a worker with a disability based on an anxiety disorder for which she takes medication.

Ruh and Muir emphasized the importance of focusing on the merits of each candidate. “People with disabilities want to be judged on how well they are qualified and experienced to perform the job,” said Muir, “But there are times when you need to adapt to the strengths of the candidate. For example, an engineer with high-level autism may not be able to express themselves well verbally, but they may have an outstanding portfolio. Rather than doing the normal situational interview, in that field it’s probably more important to see what a person has done rather than judge them on how well they can talk about it.”

Shensky uses Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and blogging to reach out to other people with disabilities and to promote her career coaching business. Emerging communication technologies are enhancing social access and participation for people with disabilities. Shensky encourages employers to think about applying these technologies to existing work scenarios in ways that will open opportunities for workers with disabilities. She observed, “Employers are now hiring people to work from home and supplying a computer and phone for them to use, so why not consider someone with a disability to do the same job?”

Education and awareness remains one of the most important topics in disability employment. Shensky said that people without disabilities tend to underestimate the capabilities and strengths of people with disabilities—they focus instead on what Shenksy describes as “disability as deviance.” She wants to remind employers that many of the minor accommodations needed by people with disabilities have cascade effects that benefit the rest of the workforce. The voice recognition software she uses, for example, is being adopted widely among the general population because it can be more efficient than traditional keyboarding.

Kylie Hughes is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

Related Articles:

Disabled Face Assumptions About Abilities, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, April 2011

Disability Employment Agencies Yield Mixed Results, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, November 2010

Quick Link: SHRM’s Disability Employment Resource Page



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