Disability Employment Agencies Yield Mixed Results

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Nov 29, 2010
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Employers and job seekers with disabilities report mixed results when dealing with agencies that are supposed to help such individuals find gainful employment.

“I have had clients that said they would love to try and hire a disabled person,” said Paul Heidhues, CPC, an engineering headhunter with Engentek Group in San Antonio, Texas. “I just haven’t found any yet.”

Heidhues, who is legally blind, said he “would love to hire other blind people.” He said he tried to reach out to various disability-related agencies to hire a team of salespeople. “I didn’t get many responses,” he told SHRM Online.

But Heidhues said that in his experience it was individuals, not disability-related agencies, who have posed obstacles to employment. “Most were too concerned with how steady paychecks would screw up their SSI (Social Security Income payments),” he said. “I did have one young man apply, but he didn’t want regular hours.

“I am not hiring you because of [the disability]. … I am hiring because of merit and potential,” he would tell applicants. “Apparently, this rubbed people the wrong way,” he said.

Some agencies anticipate and address issues such as these with their clients.

Mike Purkey, executive director of ICON Community Services, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit that helps connect employers and candidates with disabilities, said he tells job seekers that “I’m not going to go get you a job; you have to be engaged in the process.”

“We really delve deeply into how committed they are to work,” he told SHRM Online. “We talk about goal setting, expectations, clothing and cleanliness.”

Systemic Challenges

Obstacles remain.

A University of Kansas study published in the March 2010 edition of The Career Development Quarterly found that the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA), which set up one-stop centers to cluster services for the unemployed—has done an inadequate job aiding people with physical or mental health impairments to find employment.

Jean Hall and Kathy Parker of the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas came to this conclusion after studying data gathered from focus groups made up of consumers and staff from one-stop centers in Kansas, along with data collected from “mystery customers”— people with disabilities who were actively seeking employment at such centers.

People with disabilities who use these centers experience low self-esteem, Hall said: “When they go into a center, the staff at the center is not well prepared to address their particular needs. That response reinforces their feelings of disempowerment—that the system is not really there to help them.”

Moreover, although the one-stop model suggests that anyone can get the services they need, Hall told SHRM Online that those with disabilities faced a “two-stop” scenario, as one-stop center counselors often directed them to the vocational rehabilitation office—“the one place they didn’t really want to go,” she said.

It wasn’t that the one-stop staff didn’t care or didn’t want to help, she said. “It’s just that they didn’t have the information and training.” Some counselors relied on their center’s veterans’ representative, if one was available, to provide needed information, she added.

Hall noted that training would need to be offered on a continuing basis because of the “fairly high turnover rate of job counselors.”

In an online chat held April 8, 2010, Kathy Martinez, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), responded to numerous questions from constituents about plans for improvements to the one-stop model. “ODEP is currently collaborating with ETA (DOL’s Employment and Training Administration) to develop a $24 million dollar initiative for improving access to and services at the one-stop career centers, building on lessons learned,” she said.

Despite what her research revealed, however, Hall said individuals with disabilities should continue to try to access services through one-stop centers. “If they try and they don’t get anything, they haven’t lost anything,” she said. “The potential is there that they’ll find something there they wouldn’t find anywhere else.”

Other Agencies and Services

Those looking for options other than one-stop centers have a wide array of other options from which to choose.

Purkey said organizations similar to ICON are available in most states, and the easiest way to find them is to go through the state’s vocational rehabilitation services office. “Tell them you are open to hiring more people,” he said.

Such agencies offer employers a variety of—often free—services such as:

  • On-site accessibility assessment—to see if there are any physical barriers to address.
  • Training for hiring managers and employees on disability etiquette.
  • Pre-screening of candidates to ensure that they are ready to work.
  • Setting up mentoring experiences and internships.
  • Help identifying accommodation options.
  • Individual training and job coaching for employees with disabilities.
  • Periodic follow-up, as needed, to ensure that the employment relationship is working.

In addition to contacting local agencies, some employers tap into national organizations that help them gain access to a specific kind of applicant.

One such organization is Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (COSD), an online job posting and college student resume database that gives employers access to college students with disabilities across the U.S.

Alan D. Muir, executive director of COSD, said he wants the job board to be as competitive as possible. “Other organizations do a lot of matching and a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he told SHRM Online. But he prefers to avoid “a forced marriage” approach in favor of “an open market.”

The benefit to employers, according to Muir, is gaining access to a consolidated pool of students with disabilities. “There’s a much larger pool than going to individual schools,” Muir added.

And COSD works hard to protect the interests of employers and applicants. As employers register on the Career Gateway site, the organization sends targeted e-mails to students in the system, calling their attention to jobs suitable for those with particular majors.

“If there is a company that comes in who we don’t know, we vet them,” he added, to become familiar with the prospective employer and to make sure they know that COSD is a career site for people with disabilities.

If newly registered employers don’t know anything about COSD, “they are out,” Muir said. “I don’t want to waste the students’ time with encyclopedia salesmen. It keeps the employer integrity up.”

There is a time and a place for the efforts of community-based agencies, he said, but he emphasized that he is not interested in getting employers to carve out certain jobs for applicants with disabilities. “We try to develop a truly professional relationship” and leave the hiring decision to the employer, Muir said. “We are not going to be pushing anybody on to anybody.”

As for results, Muir said SunTrust Bank identified several new hiresafter advertising opportunities for students to participate in internships and Disability Mentoring Day, an annual event promoted by the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). Another student found herself being courted by more than one hiring manager at NASA after she gave a presentation at one of COSD’s student summits.

Barbara Frankel, director of career and academic services at Lighthouse International, a New York-based nonprofit that helps people overcome the challenges of vision loss, said her organization, which published Perfectly Able: How to Attract and Hire Talented People with Disabilities (AMACOM, 2010), works “hand in hand” with employers to help them find and place candidates, identify accommodations and give them information on funding and tax incentives.

“As long as a company partners with organizations, they can get lots of help at no cost,” Frankel said. “They just have to identify the kinds of individuals they want to work with and then go to the kinds of organizations that can meet their needs. … It’s the same as when you develop a relationship with recruiters and other sources.”

“We have people that go in and look at physical space, the lighting, the glare, the noise, the nature of the space, electrical outlets,” said Frankel. “We try to do an assessment of the job so the individual is prepared and can hit the ground running,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean that every agency will meet every employer’s needs.

Frankel’s advice: “Start by developing relationships with a couple of organizations that represent the kind of workforce you are looking for.”

Attracting People with Disabilities

The best and brightest applicants with disabilities will have many options, just like other top talent. Employers need to be sure that their workplace is ready to welcome such workers.

Hall encourages employers who are seeking candidates with disabilities to tap into various kinds of organizations and let them know that jobs are available as well as to add language to every job ad saying that “people with disabilities are encouraged to apply.”

Other ways to signal that an organization is disability friendly, according to Frankel, include:

  • Featuring individuals with disabilities on its web site as they describe what it’s like to work in various roles.
  • Having top managers speak about their commitment to employing people with disabilities.
  • Getting positive media coverage by publicizing efforts involving people with disabilities.

In June 2002, the National Center on Workforce and Disability Policy published guidance intended for one-stop centers but which employers can use as they strive to meet the needs of job seekers with disabilities:​

  • Make people feel welcome. If someone with a disability comes through the door, treat them in the same manner as you would anyone—with respect, dignity, common courtesy, professionalism and a helpful attitude.
  • If you don’t know, ask. If you’re not sure how to handle a situation with a person with a disability, ask the individual. They know best what they want and need.
  • Focus on the person’s abilities. All of us have things we are good at as well as things we don’t do well. Instead of focusing on what a person can’t do, focus on the skills, talents and abilities that a person has.

    Make it easy for the individual to ask for and obtain accommodations. Indicate verbally and in writing the availability of reasonable accommodations in recruiting materials and forms, on web sites, in the reception area, at orientation and elsewhere.
  • Don’t stereotype. People with disabilities are as diverse as everyone else and should be treated as individuals. Don’t assume, for example, that because you have a friend who is blind you understand the needs of all blind people.
  • Don’t assume that a person with a disability needs help. Before assisting someone with a disability, ask them whether they need assistance and, if so, what kind.

Attitudinal Barriers

To those who have told Purkey “I’ve never worked with anyone with a disability; I’m not sure how to do that,” he says, “You probably have; you just don’t know it.”

Some employers worry about how well individuals will adapt to the workplace. One of Purkey’s clients found a way to address that issue. When they hired a young man with an obvious intellectual disability, they placed the employee’s desk near the coffee pot so many people would pass it. Within a couple of weeks [the new employee] was really immersed in the business,” Purkey said.

And what happens if a worker with a disability doesn’t work out? “Well, then, you terminate them,” he said. “Just like any other employee.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Quick Link: SHRM’s Disability Employment Resource Page

Related Articles:

Community-Based Employment Initiative Launched to Help Individuals with Disabilities, SHRM Online Staffing Management Discipline, Nov. 22, 2010

Do You Know Who Your Employees Are? SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Nov. 5, 2010

Survey: Companies Have Scaled Back Disability Hiring Programs, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Oct. 25, 2010

Has the Americans with Disabilities Act Made a Difference? SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, July 9, 2010

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