Counting on Workers with Disabilities

By Susan J. Wells Apr 1, 2008

HR Magazine, April 2008 The nation’s largest minority remains an underused resource.

In November, Walgreens — one of the nation’s largest drugstore retailers — will open a state-of-the-art distribution center in Windsor, Conn. It will be the company’s second facility designed specifically to employ people with disabilities and is patterned after the 5,571-store group’s Anderson, S.C., center that opened last summer.

Managers at both facilities share a goal of having people with disabilities fill at least one-third of the available jobs.

Many observers laud the retailer’s plans as a source of meaningful jobs with equal opportunities for advancement and job mobility. And the outcomes so far suggest that the company’s latest prescription for diversification works well, contends Deb Russell, Walgreens’ manager of outreach and employee services, based at headquarters in Deerfield, Ill. Company leaders intend to launch similar initiatives at future distribution centers—and use the experience to provide managers in other divisions with information and guidance they expect will result in even more hiring of people with disabilities.

“We know of no other facility of its kind where such a significant portion of the workforce has disabilities,” Russell says of the $175 million South Carolina location. Currently, 40 percent of the distribution center’s 400 employees have disclosed physical or cognitive disabilities. Yet the facility’s efficiency rose by 20 percent since opening, after technology and process changes originally intended to accommodate workers with disabilities improved everyone’s jobs. At full capacity, the center will employ 800. Workers will include those challenged by cognitive disabilities and autism.

While Walgreens has always employed people with disabilities, the experience of creating a disability-friendly environment in its distribution division “is the first time we have looked at the issue in a systemic, holistic way. It has been a transforming event,” Russell says, adding that it is “the best thing we’ve ever done.”

Not every employer shares or practices Walgreens’ level of long-term commitment and investment in hiring people with disabilities, but demographic trends suggest that more companies should—and ultimately will have to—as growth of the traditional labor pool slows, the workforce ages and disability rates rise.

Plus, as human resource, recruitment and diversity leaders recognize and support the abilities of this chronically underemployed group, the business benefits of tapping this talent pool becomes clear, experts say.

Tangible benefits include a larger labor pool and tax benefits for hiring workers with disabilities; intangibles include a workforce reflecting community makeup and the knowledge that the opportunities expand individuals’ potential, awareness and achievement.

“The disabled population is the only minority group that anyone can join at any time,” says Jonathan Kaufman, president and founder of DisabilityWorks Inc., a disability-strategy consulting firm in New York. “It’s essential that employers see this issue as not just a disability issue, but as a human-capital issue that can literally impact anyone. Only then can they build a business strategy to include this group.”

Big Numbers

Among people ages 21 to 64 in the United States during 2006, 12.9 percent had at least one disability—22.4 million of the 173 million working-age adults.

Despite positive stories such as Walgreens’ and others, the employment rate of working-age people with disabilities remains only half that of people without disabilities— 37.7 percent compared with 79.7 percent in 2006, according to an annual analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data by the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics (StatsRRTC) at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Yet people with disabilities want to work: Two-thirds of unemployed people with disabilities say they would prefer to be working, Cornell and federal data show. “The long-standing employment gap between people with and without disabilities appears to be getting wider,” says Andrew Houtenville, director of StatsRRTC and senior research associate at Cornell’s Employment and Disability Institute. “People with disabilities are not keeping pace in this economy.”

A gap in earnings also exists: Median annual earnings for full-time, year-round workers are $30,000 for those with disabilities, compared with $37,000 for those without disabilities.

When it comes to work, some workers with disabilities fare better than others.

Among six types of disabilities identified in federal data, people with sensory disabilities—defined as blindness, deafness, or a severe hearing or vision impairment—now have the highest employment rate, at 47.5 percent. People with self-care disabilities—those that have difficulty dressing, bathing or getting around inside the home because of a physical, mental or emotional condition—experience the lowest employment rate, at 17.1 percent.

Other research suggests that job applicants with disabilities find it particularly difficult to enter the workforce and be accommodated, compared with current employees who become disabled, a 2006 study shows. In fact, according to the study—for which researchers at the Law, Health Policy and Disability Center at the University of Iowa, the International Center for Disability Information and Job Accommodation Network at West Virginia University and the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University conducted interviews with 890 employers—employees who become disabled are most likely to receive workplace accommodations.

The reason: “The employer may more readily estimate that worker’s direct benefit and value to the company and factor in the benefits associated with not having to replace that employee,” researchers concluded.

Susanne Bruyere, Ph.D., an associate dean and director of Cornell’s Employment and Disability Institute, points to another sure trend when analyzing and forecasting disability statistics: An aging workforce likely will result in an increasing number of workers with disabilities.

While 12.9 percent of people ages 21 to 64 have disabilities, that percentage more than doubles to 30.2 percent for people ages 65 to 74, and quadruples to 52.6 percent for those age 75 and older, according to Cornell’s report.

“Successful companies will make it a priority to create a workplace culture that embraces and encourages diversity,” Bruyere says. “It has been successfully done for race, sex and sexual orientation. Now age and disability must be added.”

Identifying Causes

Researchers agree that the employment rate for working-age people with disabilities has, with few exceptions, declined over the last decade and for now, in fact, appears stuck. (See “Employment Rate Among People with Disabilities,” below.) However, they don’t always agree about the main cause for this decline. In an October 2007 report, Empowerment for Americans with Disabilities: Breaking Barriers to Careers and Full Employment, the National Council on Disability in Washington, D.C., outlined challenges and barriers to employment of people with disabilities.

On the supply side, there may be costs associated with employing people with disabilities, such as remedial education or training, the need for flexible work arrangements, and disincentives from disability income and health care. On the demand side, barriers include employer discrimination and reluctance to hire, corporate cultures that aren’t disability-friendly, and the need for accommodations.

In addition, current labor market and workplace trends reflect mixed messages. The bad news: Researchers say people with disabilities are currently underrepresented in occupations projected to grow fastest from 2004-14, and they’re currently more likely to be in slower-growing service and blue-collar jobs.

The good news from National Council researchers:

  • Growth in new information technologies help compensate for many types of disabilities and increase the chances for productive work.
  • Growth in telecommuting and flexible work arrangements suit many people with disabilities.
  • More attention to issues of diversity and disability by employers may combine to reverse the underemployment trend.

Advocates who help people with disabilities transition to the workforce say some reasons that contribute to the lingering employment gap outweigh others. (For examples, see “Why Not?” in this article.)

A Fresh Perspective

Employers need a mind-set shift when it comes to people with disabilities, says DisabilityWorks’ Kaufman, who advises corporations, governments, educational institutions and nonprofits.

“The way we look at disability has become stale,” he insists. “We tend to see disability based on a charitable model rather than seeing people with disabilities as valuable human capital who can have a tremendous impact on businesses.

“Rather than saying we’ll give people with disabilities jobs based on good will, we need to think about the value of human capital and see people with disabilities as a critical component,” he says.

To guide and plan recruitment, assessment and retention, Kaufman advises employers to view workers with disabilities as a varied group made up of five distinct “pillars”: collegeeducated people with disabilities, aging baby boomers, seniors, disabled veterans, and people with cognitive or developmental disabilities.

Kaufman, who was born with cerebral palsy, counsels HR professionals to treat disability as a “lifespan issue,” to see employees as assets and to universally respond to the needs of all.

Finding Solutions

People with disabilities vary significantly in their capabilities, strengths, limitations and personal characteristics. Based on interviews with employers, HR researchers and disability leaders, the following strategies and peer examples emerge among the best ways to advance opportunities and improve employability, no matter what the disability.

Partner with public and private disability agencies and community organizations. Walgreens, for example, works with the Disabilities and Special Needs Board in Anderson, S.C., and the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department to develop training for people with special needs at its distribution centers.

Provide information and outreach. Also at Walgreens, a specially designed web site,, provides information to help potential employees with disabilities understand what work is like at its new centers.

Mandate increased awareness and education. Current employees and managers need training too. Giant Eagle Inc., a 223-store grocer based in Pennsylvania, with 36,000 employees, sponsors disability-awareness training for its HR managers every two years. Specialists representing disability agencies participate in the sessions, which are held off-site at a YMCA camp. Attendees learn about the Americans with Disabilities Act and interviewing skills. They spend time experiencing work and life with disabilities through simulation exercises led by job coaches. In one exercise, for example, HR managers maneuver through work activities in wheelchairs, going through doors, up and down ramps, or reaching for items on shelves.

Re-examine how work, productivity and accommodation can go hand in hand. In Walgreens’ case, “we didn’t lower our productivity standards,” Russell says. Instead, “the goal was to make work more intuitive” by using technology and redesigning jobs. For example, the company replaced keyboards with touch screens based on large pictures and icons, not words, making it easier and quicker for people with cognitive disabilities to learn and complete tasks. More-flexible, easy-to-use, height-adjustable workstations make jobs easier for all employees, Russell says.

Look at abilities first and tailor assistance and mentoring to match. At online automotive marketplace AutoTrader .com Inc. in Atlanta, a coordinator with autism—a graduate of the Bobby Dodd Institute (BDI), an Atlanta nonprofit that partners with employers to provide training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities—uses tools to help him in his work. For instance, he uses a timer at each stop along his route to ensure that he stays on pace to get everything done each day, says Rebecca Watson, the company’s vice president of organizational services and community relations. He’s also encouraged to bring a BDI coach with him to the office to help him understand new duties and expectations when his job expands or changes. “These things aren’t that much different from the training or mentoring we would offer any employee during the course of their career here -- or the daytimers and calendars everyone else uses,” Watson points out.

Consider “job-carving.” Wayne McMillan, president and chief executive officer at BDI, urges employers to custom-tailor employment for different levels of abilities. "A candidate with a developmental disability, for example, might be able to do three of the five parts of a job," he says, "and that may be an acceptable level for the employer’s requirements. Further, the potential employee might even be able to do everything in the job description, and more, with a small amount of assistive technology," McMillan says.

Establish pipelines to reach school-age recruits with disabilities. At an Old Navy retail store in Georgia, managers and employees work closely with high-school counselors to prepare students with learning disabilities for the workplace, according to Daphne Sorro, vice president of diversity and inclusion for parent company Gap Inc., based in San Francisco.

For two years, students with varying levels of abilities have learned to successfully complete tasks necessary to create the expected store experience for customers. (See “Gap Fills the Employment Gap,” left.)

“This is a great opportunity for students who have expressed an interest in working for us upon graduation,” Sorro says. “They will have practical, on-the-job experience,” an attribute often harder for entry-level people with disabilities to land on their own.

Susan J. Wells, a contributing editor for HR Magazine, is based in the Washington, D.C., area

Web Extras

Online sidebar:
Gap Employment the Fills Gap

SHRM articles:
Strong Partnerships Aid Disability Employment Efforts
(SHRM Online Diversity Focus Area)

How To Attract the Largest Minority Market
(SHRM Online Diversity Focus Area) 

Disability-Inclusive Initiatives Result in Positive ROI
(SHRM Online Diversity Focus Area) 

Disability Etiquette Starts with Common Sense
(SHRM Online Diversity Focus Area) 

SHRM toolkit:
Americans with Disabilities Act 

SHRM Video:
Judy Young, vice president of national program development for Abilities Inc. and the National Business and Disability Council, on aging disability 

Web sites:
Disability Statistics
(Cornell University) 

Employment and Disability Institute
(Cornell University) 

National Council on Disability 

Office of Disability Employment Policy 

The Job Accommodation Network 

Bobby Dodd Institute 

American Association of People with Disabilities 

National Business and Disability Council 

Employer Assistance & Recruiting Network

Why Not?

One big barrier to employment of people with disabilities continues to be a perception problem. Employers’ lack of knowledge, awareness and comfort level with workplace disability issues often makes them view workers with disabilities as having too many limitations to perform jobs. The resulting fear of the unknown stymies hiring.

In a 2006 study, the Bobby Dodd Institute (BDI) asked 200 human resource decisionmakers from companies of various sizes and industries to list reasons why employers are reluctant to hire individuals with disabilities. BDI, an Atlanta nonprofit, partners with employers to provide training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Nearly 50 percent of the HR professionals polled said people with disabilities could not adequately perform required work duties. Also topping the reasons identified: 25 percent cited lack of knowledge about the disabled as the primary deterrent, another 20 percent mentioned concern about cost of workplace adjustments and accommodations, and 15 percent admitted a lack of understanding about accommodations.

Human resource professionals, “by necessity and often rightly so, tend to spend a lot of time on risk aversion,” says Wayne McMillan, president and chief executive officer at BDI. His organization places close to 200 people with disabilities a year in jobs in Georgia. “And many people with disabilities are still assessed in terms of what they can’t do vs. what they can do.”


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