Looking for Quality Workers? Don’t Overlook People with Disabilities

How to create a welcoming culture for a huge talent pool

By Kathy Gurchiek Apr 19, 2016
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ORLANDO, Fla.—Quick! In 60 seconds jot down as many animals as you can that start with the letter “g.” No Google searches allowed.

Attendees faced this challenge in the concurrent session “Disability = Diversity! How to Recruit, Retain and Engage a Workforce with Disabilities” on the first day of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Talent Management Conference & Exposition.

How many “g” animals did you come up with? The individual who thought up the most wrote down nine animals. But when the group pooled its answers, that number jumped to 27, with animals as diverse as gazelle, groundhog and gibbon.

“That’s the power of ‘we’ and the power of diversity” in problem-solving, said co-presenter Shavonne Singleton, outreach and brand manager for Lansing, Mich.-based Peckham Social Enterprises. Peckham also operates in Iowa and Arizona.

2016 Talent Management Conference & Exposition
2016 SHRM Talent Management Conference

Peckham is a nonprofit organization that provides job training and placement for individuals with disabilities or other barriers to employment. Its five businesses include manufacturing services for military and commercial apparel; a call center and IT helpdesk; environmental services; a warehouse, fulfillment center and military equipment restoration; and Peckham Farms.

About 42 percent of its employees have a mental illness, 23 percent have a physical disability and 21 percent have a development disability. Smaller percentages (8 percent and lower) of its staff include people with a learning disability, brain injury, and visual or audio impairments.

Singleton and colleague Sarah George, organizational employment manager, discussed how companies can build a culture that is successful in bringing people with disabilities into an organization.

They ticked off the following statistics:

  • Nearly 50 percent of adults in the U.S. will develop at least one mental illness during their lifetime, according to the World Health Organization.
  • A little more than 1 in 4 of today’s 20-year-olds will acquire a disability before they retire, according to the Social Security Administration.
  • The likelihood of disability increases as employees grow older; 47 percent of people with disabilities are 65 and older, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More than 44 million people have a disability, according to Singleton.

“This is a huge talent pool,” she said, and employers are starting to take note. The U.S. Department of Labor announced in 2013 a final rule that introduced a hiring goal for federal contractors and subcontractors that 7 percent of each job group in their workforce must “be qualified individuals with disabilities.”

Additionally, Millennials, who will make up 75 percent of the global workforce by 2025, have said they want to work for inclusive employers, Singleton said.

Hiring people with disabilities does not mean lowering performance expectations, George said.

“We have high standards [at Peckham]. We don't lower our standards for people with disabilities. We have a lot of work that is shift work that requires people to be in their seats to serve our customers. We are very clear up front ... we don’t have more lenient polices for people with disabilities.”

Opening Doors

Singleton and George offered the following recommendations for creating a welcoming culture for people with disabilities:

  • Volunteer your building space as a community resource for groups representing people with disabilities.
  • Host or sponsor an event on behalf of a population that represents people with a disability.
  • Be mindful of your organization’s work space. At Peckham, Braille is included in signage; the height of workstations and cafeteria tables can be adjusted; lobby and break areas have video phones; and areas of the buildings are color-coded, such as using a specific color on bathroom signage for those with cognitive disabilities.
  • Emphasize and commit to a culture where people feel comfortable disclosing a disability and seeking accommodation, if needed.
  • Identify and address any barriers people with disabilities may face and consider having a centralized accommodation fund in your budget.
  • Offer counseling, such as support groups, vocational coaching and employee assistance programs.

Think equity, not equality, for the employee experience, George told attendees.

Millennials and Baby Boomers, for example, have different expectations of the workplace, such as when and how they work. If those expectations are not met, “they’ll survive but they won’t thrive.

“The same is true with people who need accommodations. Think about customizing your work environment for people. ‘Equity’ means people get what they need to be successful,” George said.

“Treat people like people and ask them what they need. Your recruiters need to be really clear that [you’re] an inviting place.”

Noted Singleton, “There’s a lot of work that has to be done ... to move beyond [just having a] policy and ... [to] create an environment where people feel like they’re being respected and not [just] tolerated. Make disabilities visible—and I don’t mean taking a picture of people with disabilities and slapping them in an ad campaign.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter.

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