Opening Doors

Some employers express uncertainty about hiring people with disabilities. These workers—and their companies—show how it can be done.

By Dori Meinert Jun 1, 2012

June CoverSince the federal Americans with Disabilities Act passed two decades ago, many barriers to employing individuals with disabilities have been dismantled.

However, surveys show that some employers still have uncertainties about hiring people with disabilities.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 12.5 percent in April, compared with 7.6 percent for people without disabilities, U.S. Labor Department figures show.

In a survey released in April by the Society for Human Resource Management, 61 percent of the 662 HR professionals responding said their organizations now include disabilities in their diversity and inclusion plans.

But only 47 percent said their organizations actively recruit people with disabilities, and even fewer–40 percent–said senior managers demonstrate a strong commitment to do so.

"It's articulated philosophically as a goal, and I'm sure that's sincere. But when you probe more deeply, it's not implemented in practice with any concerted energy," says Susanne M. Bruyère, director of the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell sponsored the survey to measure employer practices in recruiting and hiring individuals with disabilities.

While 49 percent of the respondents cited a lack of qualified applicants as a barrier to hiring people with disabilities, about one in four listed supervisors' lack of knowledge about accommodations. About one in five said the cost of accommodations was a factor.

Concerns about accommodations are frequently unfounded, experts say. While 56 percent of all accommodations cost nothing, the typical one-time expenditure is about $500, according to the Job Accommodation Network, a free service provided by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. When looking for ideas, the best place to start is with employees themselves.

Ian Elliott, The Boeing Co.

Ian Elliott, 29, is a contract and pricing administrator for The Boeing Co. in Germantown, Md. His job requires him to pay attention to detail, to check the fine print.

Some might be surprised to learn that he is legally blind.

He spends his days reviewing contracts and comparing them against the quotes, making sure terms and conditions are in order. Most of his time is spent on the computer.

He uses two key tools. The first is screen magnification software that enlarges the text. "It's a pretty common, inexpensive product," he says. The software usually costs from $300 to $400, according to the American Foundation for the Blind website. The second tool is a desktop video magnifier. It acts like "a giant magnifying glass" and displays paper contracts on a second monitor, Elliott explains. Desktop video magnifiers like Elliott's start at about $2,700, but smaller, portable models are available, according to several manufacturers' websites.

If these tools didn't exist, "my job would be largely impossible, or at least very difficult," says Elliott, who was born with a congenital disorder known as Nance-Horan syndrome. Despite undergoing several surgeries, he remains blind in his right eye and has limited vision in his left eye.

Elliott was hired last September through Boeing's partnership with the National Industries for the Blind. He completed contract management support training offered by the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Acquisition University.

Like other employees with the appropriate skills, training and background, Elliott is a highly prized worker, says Mitch Villanueva, HR senior manager for Boeing Electronic & Mission Systems. "He does really good work," Villanueva adds.

For employees who are blind, Boeing provides software to read aloud text that appears on the computer screen. Prices range from $250 to $1,500, according to the American Foundation for the Blind.

Yet, about 75 percent of those who are blind or who have trouble seeing even with eyeglasses are not in the workforce, the foundation's analysis of census data found.

"For the disabled person, the main battle for them isn't actually doing their work," Elliott says. The top challenge: finding a supportive team that takes the employee seriously, he says.

Because Boeing has committed to investing in him, Elliott says, there's "a huge impetus on me to make that investment worthwhile, which I'm doing my best to do."

Curtis Wyse, Michigan Gas Utilities

Curtis Wyse locates and treats corrosion in natural gas pipelines for Michigan Gas Utilities. He spends about 85 percent of his time in the field, mostly working alone.

Wyse, 45, who lost his hearing as an infant, uses text messages to communicate with his boss and co-workers in the field.

When he receives a phone call at his office in Monroe, Mich., he uses a government-funded video relay service. An interpreter translates the caller's message into American Sign Language, which Wyse sees on his TV monitor. Some hearing-impaired individuals sign their response for translation as well. However, Wyse is able to speak directly to callers.

A few years ago, he relied on co-workers to make calls for him. "With the videophone, I'm more independent and more confident in communicating with others," he says. He also receives phone messages in sign language.

He has requested the video relay service software to be installed on his iPad so he can communicate from the field.

The company pays for the equipment, but the video relay service provider is reimbursed by the federal government. Some video relay service providers offer free videophones.

When Wyse was hired 16 years ago, he communicated through e-mail and relied on co-workers to take and deliver phone messages. Text messaging brought him more freedom.

As a construction coordinator, he used to sleep with a vibrating pager so he would be alerted to emergency calls. Sometimes, he slept through a call. Now, he has a videophone at home with a strobe light. "That wakes me up," he jokes.

In small groups, Wyse reads lips and can follow conversations. But he knows his limits. In large groups, he requests an interpreter, which can cost $45 to $60 an hour, according to several vendors' websites.

He has requested interpreters for two technical training courses. The organizations conducting the training–not his company–pay for the interpreters.

Wyse is his own best advocate, says his supervisor, William Muller. He stays on top of the latest technology to help his employer and himself. "He's just always on the lookout for a better way," Muller says.

Both agree there have been times when the inability to communicate frustrated them. "Rather than getting upset or angry, it's just a matter of working through it," Muller says.

When an employer takes the time to learn about deaf culture, it helps avoid misunderstandings, Wyse says. For example, "Deaf or hearing-impaired people tend to be very blunt because they like to get to the point with direct communication. This can cause the employer to take a step back from the deaf individual because they aren't comfortable with this kind of approach."

Wyse encourages employers to give people with disabilities a chance. "You would find some unique talent," he says.

Muller agrees: "In Curtis, we have a fine individual with the right capabilities for the job. By accepting the responsibility to deal with his hearing impairment, I gained a great long-term employee."

Kyle Weafer, AMC Entertainment

Kyle Weafer, 21, looks forward to going to work each day. In fact, he typically arrives a half-hour early at the AMC movie theater in Leawood, Kan., where he works as a film crew associate, greeting customers and sweeping floors.

Last year, Weafer was the only associate at that movie theater who received a perfect score on his individual evaluation, says Andy Traub, SPHR, director of recruitment at AMC Entertainment.

Diagnosed with autism when he was 3, Weafer was one of the first individuals hired through AMC's year-old FOCUS program, which stands for Furthering Opportunities, Cultivating Untapped Strengths.

"I good usher. I work hard, and I so reliable. Supervisors like me–call me MVP," Weafer told his parents.

FOCUS was rolled out to more than 350 theaters in April 2011. The company partners with the Autism Society and other groups to locate potential employees with disabilities. A distinct feature of the FOCUS program is the "traveling interview." A job applicant and volunteer job coach–perhaps a parent or agency advocate–walk through the theater as the general manager demonstrates the job tasks.

Instead of sitting in an office, "we take them out and show them," Traub says. "We are simply looking for a willingness to be trained."

The walk-through gives the applicant and job coach the opportunity to point out potential problems and discuss solutions. Most accommodations are easy and inexpensive, Traub says. For example, the company simplified the ushers' schedules and prints them in large type. The change helps all employees.

Employees who are hired through the FOCUS program are diligent. The average tenure for all employees with known disabilities is five years, compared with 1.6 years for those without known disabilities, he says.

In addition, other employees find more meaning in their work as a result of helping co-workers with disabilities, Traub says. Customer feedback also has been positive.

Weafer now has plans for the future: "I adult now and so independent. I get apartment someday."

The author is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

What are the barriers to hiring more people with disabilities at your organization?

How would you describe managers’ knowledge of accommodations?

What accommodations has your organization provided? What did they cost?

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