Attitudes on Hiring Those with Disabilities Have Shifted—Slowly

By Bill Leonard Sep 4, 2009

Erin Riehle

When employers assess job candidates and employees for hiring or promotions, they tend to look at job skills and experience—and to focus on what the applicant or employee is capable of doing. However, when an employee or applicant happens to have a disability, then the focus often shifts from what the person can do toward what he or she can’t do.

“It’s a battle that I fight every day,” said Erin Riehle, director of Project SEARCH, a job training and recruiting program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “Although attitudes toward hiring people with disabilities have changed for the better, there are still barriers that must be overcome. The tendency has always been to look at what disabled applicants can’t do and not what they can do in their job.”

Riehle has worked since 1995 to change employers’ attitudes toward hiring applicants with disabilities. She began exploring ways to recruit, train and hire people to work for the children’s hospital in her hometown of Cincinnati. The hospital had trouble identifying and attracting candidates for jobs such as restocking supply closets and cabinets and cleaning medical instruments. Riehle saw an opportunity in recruiting and training people with disabilities—especially those with intellectual or cognitive disabilities—to help identify candidates for support positions at the hospital, which traditionally were hard to fill.

By forming partnerships with local agencies and groups that help place people with cognitive disabilities into jobs, Project SEARCH was created. The program is a huge success and has been replicated in dozens of states and in countries such as Australia and Britain. Recently, the British government approached Riehle and asked if Project SEARCH could help start 30 to 40 new programs in the U.K.

Riehle is proud of the success of Project SEARCH, yet she believes more must be done before employer attitudes begin focusing on applicants’ abilities and not their disabilities. The key to the success of the program, according to Riehle, is that it focuses on finding suitable applicants who are then trained to fill a specific job. This is a model that has worked for employers for many years, so Riehle applied it to train people who happen to have a disability.

“Employers will hire someone for their job skills and experience and then train them for the job, so why should this be any different for someone with a disability?” she asked.

Target a Business Need

The best and most successful programs for hiring people with cognitive disabilities must fit well and become an integral part of an employer’s business model and strategic plan, Riehle said. Stephen M. Wing, director of government programs for CVS Caremark, agrees, saying that he was inspired after hearing Riehle speak on the topic.

“When she spoke about focusing on the abilities and not the disabilities of workers, that really struck a chord with me,” he said. “I told myself that CVS could do this and that this type of program could have great potential.”

Wing said that one of the key strategic goals for CVS is to have employees at its different store locations that resemble the population of the local community.

“We want our customers to feel comfortable in our stores and feel that the employees are their friends and neighbors,” he said. “People with disabilities are an important part of this equation.”

CVS Caremark has partnered throughout the country with agencies and associations dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities find jobs and, as a result, their places in society. In one program CVS gives students with cognitive and intellectual disabilities cameras and asks them to take pictures. The students learn to load and unload cameras and learn to handle film and to get photos processed.

“Once they’re familiar with operating cameras, we then teach them about our one-hour photo labs and how to download and print digital pictures,” Wing said. “We’ve had a lot of success with this program and have found some very good employees who love their work.”

The goodwill created in the community from hiring individuals with disabilities has benefited the drug store chain as well.

“There are so many people who have friends and family members with disabilities, and when they see someone in a wheelchair or someone who uses sign language working in a CVS, they go and tell others about it,” Wing said. “We’ve heard from many customers who have told us they won’t shop at any other drugstore and tell their friends to shop at CVS because of our hiring policies.”

Katherine McCary, a vice president for SunTrust Bank in Richmond, Va., said customer feedback on the bank’s efforts to hire disabled workers is extremely positive and has helped establish SunTrust branches as community leaders throughout the nation.

“It’s definitely a business decision and effort to recruit and hire people with disabilities,” said McCary, who manages the bank’s Accessing Community Talent program and Disability Resource Center. But to be a truly inclusive program we treat everyone with disabilities equally—and don’t differentiate between cognitive and physical disabilities. We look to hire anyone who has the ability to perform the job, and see how they best fit into our organization.”

Seek Outside Help

McCary said that building partnerships with government agencies and private organizations dedicated to helping disabled workers is essential.

“Programs like these don’t work without their support and cooperation,” she said. “We’re a bank and we know the banking business; these groups and agencies specialize in working with the disabled, so combined we can offer great training and work opportunities that some people with disabilities may not have considered possible a few years ago.”

SunTrust’s efforts in creating an inclusive program for hiring people with disabilities has received national attention and won several awards. Interest among other employers in the SunTrust programs is strong, McCary said. And, surprisingly, employer interest in these types of programs increased with the economic downturn.

“You’d think the opposite would be true, but I’ve received more calls and seen attendance at workshops grow over the past 12 months,” she said.

At the workshops, McCary said, her advice is always the same, “be prepared to work with local groups and agencies; they will be your best friend when building these programs.”

However, McCary, Riehle and Wing caution employers not to be overly dependent on agencies and to have a plan and direction for the type of training and hiring program the organization wants to create.

“There must be some direction from the business on what the goals of the program should be,” Riehle said. “The program shouldn’t be hiring disabled people just to give them jobs; that doesn’t work. There must be specific goals and parameters for the type of workers you need and what training is needed to prepare these workers for the jobs your organization needs to fill.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.

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