Experts: Adjust Practices to Facilitate Disability Employment

By Pamela Babcock May 7, 2012

NEWARK, N.J.—Application procedures, interviewing processes and other HR practices must be adapted as needed to ensure that people with disabilities have the same access to jobs as other applicants, experts said during the U.S. Disability Matters Awards Banquet and Conference held here April 18-19, 2012.

Employers’ and managers’ fears and lack of experience with people with disabilities are the main reasons why people with disabilities remain persistently unemployed, according to Shelley Kaplan, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) services manager for Springboard Consulting in Mendham, N.J. In March 2012, for example, just 20 percent of people with disabilities were part of the U.S. labor force, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, compared with 69 percent of people without disabilities.

“What I hear from our ADA hotline and conversations is that well-written policies and practices aren’t necessarily followed consistently with job applicants,” Kaplan told attendees.

Moreover, once people with disabilities are employed, inflexible practices often result in unnecessary complaints and disability discrimination lawsuits because corporate culture doesn’t make it safe to solve their issues. “Creating that safe environment to exchange ideas is critical,” she said.

Website Challenges

Several speakers and attendees noted that the application process can be a roadblock for applicants who cannot “view” graphic elements of an employment site because they have a visual impairment and use screen reader software. Moreover, some online application forms time out or cut off the application process after a period of inactivity, which can affect those who are visually impaired, have cognitive issues or dexterity challenges that require extra time to complete the application process.

“The majority of major corporations do all of their recruiting online, which is great because an online system is blind: They don’t know if you are African American, or are in a wheelchair … so it’s a good way to attract talent,” attendee Robert J. Vetere, an EEO/diversity specialist with Northrop Grumman in Baltimore, said during a question-and-answer session.

“But I can’t find where employers are being held to establish and maintain a standard for web accessibility,” said Vetere, who is visually impaired and uses a screen reader to view websites. “And if you can’t access these sites, you don’t have a prayer of getting the opportunity.”

Corrado Gigante, director of the Newark area office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), said the concern is not new. “We have had some conversations with disability rights groups over the years about the issue of applying and the timing out problem that has occurred. It seems to be a major issue,” he said. “It may take nothing more than some organization coming forward and filing [an EEOC claim] … to get this matter moved to the front burner.”

CSX Corp., which won an award at the event, is a supporter of Essential Accessibility, a software provider that provides an icon on the CSX and other websites for people who have trouble typing, moving a mouse or reading. Visitors can download free keyboard and mouse replacements, including a webcam-based, hands-free movement tracking system, a page reader, predictive typing and other customizable options.

Tweaking Interview Questions

Andy Traub, SPHR, director of recruitment at AMC Theatres—which won an award for its work to hire employees with cognitive disorders, including autism—said his company modified its behavioral interview process after it tested one question on a group of individuals with autism. Because some autistic individuals are quite candid, a common answer to “What would you do if you found a $20 bill on the floor of an auditorium?” did not come as a surprise: “I’d put it in my pocket,” many said.

“It probably is the most honest answer but not necessarily the best answer,” Traub noted. So the company nixed the standard questions and substituted a realistic job preview process, which involves taking applicants through the entire theater building so they can see what they would be doing on the job and revealing the expectations they would face.

Although the process was designed as a best practice for a special group of applicants, Traub said, the company now uses the same process for all prospective hires.

Changes that make the workplace better for people with disabilities often improve the work experience for everybody, suggested EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum during the conference awards dinner at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

For example, when designing a building, why put steps to the front door and a ramp on the side? Why not just put one big ramp that leads to the front door?

Feldblum said she hopes that “the ADA becomes one of the best management tools we have,” but she acknowledged that “diversity in the context of disability can sometimes seem hard” because “folks are used to requiring uniformity.”

“People think equality means treating people the same, but … it’s about treating people as equals with equal dignity and respect,” she said.

Other Takeaways

Speakers offered several other suggestions for making the most of disability inclusion:

  • Remember that processes that have worked before won’t necessarily work five or 10 years from now, particularly given technological advances. “We always say if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” said Herbertina “Tina” Johnson, chief diversity officer for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service in Dallas, another award winner. “But if you don’t continue to look at your processes, then you won’t know whether it’s broke or if it needs fixing.”
  • Educate, don’t mandate. “If you educate, then the awareness is from the standpoint that it’s the right thing to do,” Johnson added. “But when it gets to the level of a mandate, it takes on a different flavor.”
  • Know what’s reasonable and “when enough is enough,” Kaplan said. “Be confident that you’ve got policies and practices in place that you review consistently to make sure they still make sense, and apply them consistently,” Kaplan said. “It’s a two-way street, and some people are going to test you,” she said. “Sometimes you have done enough … and you can lawfully terminate.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

Quick Link: Disability Employment Resource Page


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