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When U.S. armed forces come marching home—about 12,000 troops in Iraq are scheduled to return in September 2009—they’ll be armed with leadership and critical-thinking skills, an ability to perform under pressure, respect for rules and procedures, and a goal- and team-oriented sensibility.
Many also will return with disabilities. More than 4,000 service members have been injured seriously since the launch of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the National Organization on Disability (NOD).
However, the savvy employer that creates a disability-friendly workplace will reap the advantages of productive, long-term employees, according to Edward J. Crenshaw Jr.
Crenshaw is the founder, president and CEO of Columbia, Md.-based DESTIN Enterprises LLC and was the presenter for a March 2009 Society for Human Resource Management webcast on “Recruiting and Assisting Combat-Exposed Veterans and People with Disabilities.”
“It is imperative that organizations recognize the strategic advantages of creating a more disability-friendly image and workplace environment that reflects the workforce and the diverse audiences that they serve,” he said.
While there is a legal and moral imperative to hire and accommodate persons with disabilities, Crenshaw said, it’s also smart business.
Nearly one-fifth of all Americans—more than 54 million people—have a physical, sensory or intellectual disability, and they represent more than $220 billion in collective spending power, according to NOD.
Some share the same disabilities as veterans, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), which means that veterans might be able to help organizations tap into this market.
TBI is a frequent injury among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans because of mortars, land mines, and tertiary or secondary blasts; however, about 1.4 million other Americans a year experience TBI, about half of which are from vehicular accidents, Crenshaw said.
PTSD affects about 6 percent to 11 percent of Afghanistan veterans and 12 percent to 20 percent of Iraq veterans, according to the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Known as “shell shock” during World War II, PTSD is a chronic mental health condition that can occur after experiencing traumatic events such as sexual or physical assaults, serious vehicular accidents, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks.
Innocuous sights, smells and sounds can trigger a reaction. For a veteran with PTSD, the aroma of hamburger on a grill might elicit a memory of a comrade’s body burning in a vehicle hit by mortar fire. The whirl of a ceiling fan could remind the veteran of a helicopter, or visible wiring might trigger memories of booby traps, Crenshaw explained.
However, non-veterans also can have PTSD; about 8 percent of 5.2 million Americans exposed to a traumatic event have it, Crenshaw said.
The symptoms of PTSD are avoidance; reliving the traumatic event; numbing, which makes it difficult to express feelings; and hyper-arousal, such as suddenly becoming angry or irritable, being startled easily, and having difficulty concentrating or sleeping. Other problems can accompany PTSD, such as drinking and drug problems.
About 30 percent of 500 U.S. employers surveyed expressed concern about the ability of a veteran with PTSD to perform his or her job, Crenshaw said, citing a study by the Center for Workplace Development at Rutgers University.
The cost of providing reasonable accommodations also is a concern, the center found, but 70 percent of accommodations can be made for under $500, according to NOD.
For those with PTSD, accommodations might include earplugs in a noisy environment, tucking wires out of sight, allowing flexible work arrangements, or supplying a mirror for a computer monitor or repositioning a desk so employees are not unexpectedly approached from behind, Crenshaw said.
“The U.S. employer community absolutely should do a better job of preparing for [veterans], their special needs and circumstances in the workplace as well as in our society,” he said.
Diversity Magazine, in its 2008 list of top companies for people with disabilities, found the following commonalities among the winners:
A program to recruit people with disabilities.
Availability of telecommuting.
Employee resource groups for those with disabilities.
HR professionals can work with consultants or diversity experts to create a more comfortable environment, Crenshaw advised, and they can check that their organizations’ employee assistance programs are current.
Resources employers can turn to include a free, nationwide database of persons with disabilities seeking employment in a variety of fields.
Federal employers can go to the Workforce Recruitment Program at https://wrp.gov/LoginPre.do?method=login. Private-sector employers and nonprofit organizations can visit the Employer Assistance and Recruiting Network (EARN) at https://wrp.gov/ExitSite.do?method=exitPre&linkKey=1. EARN is a free service from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.
Other resources include:
America’s Heroes at Work, a U.S. Department of Labor project focusing on employment of veterans with PTSD and TBI.
HireVetsFirst, which includes a tool that translates military occupational classifications into civilian job skills.
National Business & Disability Council, an employer resource that includes resumes, accessibility surveys and a hotline.
National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which is under the Department of Veterans Affairs.
RecruitMilitary, where employers can post a job 24/7, search resumes of veterans and peruse a listing of veteran-centric job fairs.
VetJobs.com Inc., a military-related job board owned and operated by veterans. Employer resources include a link to SHRM Online under “employer forums.”
VetCentral helps employers with such things as building their workforce, complying with state and federal regulations, and meeting federal job posting requirements for affirmative action.
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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