Employers Lauded for Disability Employment Strategies

By Pamela Babcock May 7, 2012
NEWARK, N.J.—Executive commitment, cross-functional teams, strong internal and external partnerships, mentoring, flexibility and creativity are some ways to mainstream people with disabilities into the workforce, experts said during the U.S. Disability Matters Awards Banquet and Conference held here April 18-19, 2012.

During the event, several winners shared stories about how a family member, friend or disability of their own has been a driving force for their commitment. “You certainly don’t have to be a special-needs parent or know someone with a disability to appreciate what people with disabilities go through, but I do think it helps,” said Nadine Vogel, president and founder of Springboard Consulting, a Mendham, N.J.- based firm that produces the event.

Internships and More

“It’s one thing to have good intentions and it’s another thing to create superlative outcomes; this is what we are involved in doing,” John Strangfeld, CEO and president of Prudential Financial Inc., told attendees.

Prudential, which sponsored the event, has a 10-week summer internship program for college students and adults with disabilities. In 2011, Prudential placed eight interns; three became full-time employees and some former interns have returned to work with Prudential in temporary positions, which could lead to full-time employment.

In addition, Prudential is the lead sponsor and co-designer of VETalent, a work-study program for transitioning veterans that guarantees candidates entry-level information technology or operations positions at Prudential and other corporations, including Johnson & Johnson and Sealed Air, upon completion of the program.

“These programs are proving not only to be the responsible thing for corporate America to do, but also a smart talent acquisition strategy,” Strangfeld said. “The combination is what gives them sustainability.”

Opening Doors and Minds

Steve Pelletier, president of Prudential’s group insurance business and executive sponsor of the company’s business resource group called Abled & Disabled Associates Partnering Together (ADAPT), said his commitment to people with disabilities runs deep. His son, now a teenager, suffered strokes at birth that led to “a range of disabilities.”

ADAPT began as the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Network (DHHN), a longstanding Prudential business resource group established by employees. In 2002, DHHN changed its focus to include a variety of disabilities.

Maryellen Reardon, vice president of learning—recruiting and professional development for Prudential, has co-chaired ADAPT since 2009. She became involved with the DHHN nearly 20 years ago when she suddenly lost most of her hearing. She received an outpouring of support and suggestions from the group. “If those people weren’t there to help me, I might have said ‘It’s just too darn hard’ and quit,” she said.

ADAPT holds panel discussions and workshops where speakers share their successes or explain how technology enables them to perform. And the group helps convert summer interns into full-time employees by holding awareness workshops with colleagues in advance. It’s a safe environment where questions or concerns can be raised, Reardon said.

For example, she said some asked how a deaf intern would interact during face-to-face meetings. The solution offered by employees was to hold team meetings in a conference room so everyone could pick up on nonverbal cues while using smart phones and laptops to “chat” using instant messaging.

Reardon said “it takes a village to have a [business resource group] that has impact at the strategic level.” National leadership, local leadership, the company’s diversity office and executive sponsorship have been key to the group’s efforts. “We’ve opened doors,” Pelletier said, “But just as important, if not more so … we’ve opened minds.”

Disability Recruiters

CSX Corp., the oldest railroad in the U.S., has had a long partnership with the military; about 23 percent of its employees are military or military-affiliated, said Susan Hamilton, chief diversity officer for CSX in Jacksonville, Fla. So it’s natural that the company has a strong relationship with the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonpartisan organization focused on the needs of injured service members.

CSX’s Able Inclusion Group was an outgrowth of that work. Formed in 2008, the group holds workshops in which employees volunteer to play the role of people with various disabilities “to learn what it is like on a very limited basis to have one of these named disabilities and to be coached and to get feedback and input from people who actually have those disabilities,” Hamilton said.

The group helps CSX recruiters “know how to recruit persons with disabilities effectively and to deal with the types of issues that will arise.”

Military and disability recruiters are part of the company’s staffing effort. “If you want to put your money where your mouth is, dedicate somebody on your staff to be a disability recruiter,” Hamilton said.

CSX partners with about 30 community agencies to identify candidates for certain jobs and posts openings on job boards such as Getting Hired, which targets individuals with disabilities. The company provides awareness training for managers as well.

Hamilton emphasized the importance of making employees comfortable with disability etiquette so they lose any fear of making mistakes that embarrass themselves or others.

Same Performance Standards

AMC Theatres, based in Kansas City, Mo., has about 20,000 associates and about 95 percent of them work in its theaters. The company was recognized during the conference for its Furthering Opportunities, Cultivating Untapped Strengths (FOCUS) program, which provides individuals with disabilities access to competitive employment, wages and benefits in its theaters.

Andy Traub, SPHR, director of recruitment for AMC Theatres, said he developed the program with the help of the Autism Society, the University of Indiana, a local public school district, a job coach, AMC’s director of diversity and inclusion, a dozen theater managers from around the country and others.

“This is not a sub-minimum wage position … where we are doing workshops in the back room,” Traub noted. “This is guest-facing, guest-interacting, competitive employment, complete with benefits.” Disabled hires are held to the same performance standards as other employees. The program has no budget associated with it, so “it’s not in danger of hitting the cutting room floor anytime soon,” Traub noted.

AMC has rolled FOCUS out in two-thirds of its 350 theaters.

Addressing Turnover and Retention

UPMC, a Pittsburgh-based integrated health care system, was recognized for its work with community partners that helps candidates prepare for interviews and on job issues such as transportation. Reduced turnover was one motivation for the company’s efforts, according to Shannon Williams, program director of community workforce development for UPMC, as was a desire to employ a workforce that represents the community it serves.

Williams said UPMC’s retention rate for people in the program is better than its overall employee retention rate, “so we’re doing something right; the folks are coming and staying and growing with the system.”

Better still, some are “changing patient’s lives,” nurses say, as is the case with “C.J.,” a young man with Down syndrome, who was placed in a labor-and-delivery department.

When patients have a baby with a disability, “they see C.J. and they see hope,” Williams said.

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

Quick Link: Disability Employment Resource Page


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