SHRM Chapters Advocate for Workers with Disabilities

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 26, 2017
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A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapter and state council are advocating for people with disabilities—both as individuals who should be valued, not stigmatized, and as a source of labor for their local economies.

Inspired by a chapter member's son who has autism, the Greenville chapter of SHRM in South Carolina is studying how to recruit and work with people with disabilities.

Since 2015, the chapter's Workforce Readiness Committee has been looking at untapped workforce talent pools—people with criminal backgrounds, older workers, military veterans, the long-term unemployed and people with disabilities—as the area grapples with a labor shortage.

A 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report listed Greenville as the fourth fastest-growing city in the U.S., but "we do not have enough people to fill the jobs that are here, and that has caused a lot of concern among our employers and a lot of anxiety for our HR folks. We're trying to find qualified and talent people to train and employ," said Laura Bogardus, SHRM-SCP, the chapter's operations director.

"We've been doing a good bit of research as a committee to better understand how to connect with these populations in a better way. We wanted to give a voice to the underrecruited but capable workers who may not always be given the [job] opportunity. We wanted to address directly the tough questions, the stigmas and any concerns for HR professionals in order to open a new talent pipeline for organizations who are already challenged to staff their positions."

The chapter focused on people with disabilities after learning about a member's son who is autistic and his success in the workplace. He received support from groups such as Greenville CAN, a network of advocates, service providers, families and community stakeholders collaborating on behalf of people with special needs and disabilities. 

Working with CAN, the chapter implemented a four-part lunch-and-learn series—open to the public—that invites employers and people with disabilities to share their workplace success stories.

"Local HR professionals in our SHRM chapter recognize that finding, hiring and retaining talent is an ever-increasing workplace issue," said Steven Nail, J.D., SHRM-SCP, chapter president. "At the same time, certain segments of the population—specifically those with disabilities—often experience obstacles when seeking employment" because of bias or lack of understanding, he told SHRM Online in an e-mail.

Organizations can take steps to make themselves more welcoming to people with disabilities. Bogardus had this advice:

  • Make sure your website is accessible to a diverse population. That includes providing captioning on photos and other images. Use design with high contrast, which makes the site more user-friendly for people with vision impairments. Greenville SHRM redesigned its site to make it compatible with screen-reader software. Use the Job Accommodation Network as a resource for creating accessible websites.
  • Write your organization's equal employment opportunity statement in a tone that expresses interest in including people with disabilities in the workplace and make sure it has a prominent place on the website.
  • Review your organization's online application system for accessibility. Someone who is visually impaired, for example, may need an alternate way of applying for a job. That might involve making it accessible to screen-reader software or offering the option of an applicant speaking with someone at the company who handles accommodations.
  • Look to community resources—like the local vocational rehabilitation agency—for disability sensitivity training, accommodation equipment or other assistance.

Employer resources also can be found through the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy.

SHRM chapters should consider the accessibility of their meetings. When registering for a chapter event, can attendees indicate accommodation needs? Is there an accommodation statement on your website?

Fighting Stigma of Mental Illness

Since May, the HR Florida SHRM State Council has been working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Florida to educate employers—and HR practitioners in particular—about mental illness and to change attitudes toward people with depression, anxiety and other forms of the illness.

One in 5 Americans—43.8 million (or 18.5 percent) U.S. adults—experience mental illness every year, and depression is the leading cause of disability in the nation,

said the council's diversity director, Eve Sweeting, SHRM-CP, citing NAMI statistics. NAMI is the largest grassroots mental health organization in the U.S.

"Every organization is impacted," whether by employees who have a mental illness or who are caregivers for others with such an illness, said Sweeting, an HR analyst with the Charlotte County (Florida) government.

Mental illness, she said, "costs billions of dollars every year in absenteeism and presenteeism." A person with depression or an anxiety disorder may need to take time off for treatment or related health issues, Sweeting said. People who have chronic conditions such as arthritis, asthma, diabetes, cancer, heart disease or hepatitis C or who have experienced a stroke often also have depression, according to WebMD.

However, unlike race, gender and ethnicity, mental illness is not always thought of as a diversity and inclusion issue. The state council set out to change that.

In conjunction with NAMI of Florida, which has 29 local affiliates, the council's "Stigma Free Florida" campaign asks CEOs and other business leaders to educate themselves about mental illness and mental health issues, the impact on productivity, and morale and workplace acceptance, and to pledge to create more inclusive and supportive workplaces. The council's executive committee members have spoken at the NAMI of Florida annual conference and have served as media representatives.

Mental health programs should be a part of employers' wellness programs, Sweeting said.

"The most important thing we can do as HR professionals is to notice the language that's being used in our organizations," such as saying that someone is crazy or obsessive. "That's part of the stigmatization of language," Sweeting said.

The council's website promotes NAMI's Stigma Free Florida toolkit, with tips for employers and managers. Sweeting said there are plans to offer webinars and make speakers available to further the state council's educational offerings to its 14,000 HR professionals and the more than 6,300 employers its membership represents. 

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