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The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is sending employers an important message: “Talent has no boundaries; workforce diversity includes workers with disabilities.” As employers begin to hire once again, therefore, they had better make sure that applicants with disabilities can find and compete for jobs just like everyone else.
DOL’s message is actually the 2010 theme for October's National Disability Employment Awareness Month, an annual opportunity to remind employers that there’s a large pool of talent waiting to contribute. According to April 2010 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than a quarter of the potential labor force of Americans with disabilities are employed (22 percent), compared with more than two-thirds of the labor force without disabilities (70 percent).
In order to tap into this population, however, employers need to make sure that their entire recruitment process is accessible. That can be tricky, because an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. population has a disability that might affect their ability to use technology, according to LaMondré Pough, vice president of sales for TecAccess, a technology company in Rockville, Va.
TecAccess employs over 60 associates with disabilities ranging from developmental to physical, giving them the ability to test systems from a wide range of perspectives, he explained during an April 21, 2010, webinar on the accessibility of career web sites. Technology has made it possible for people with disabilities to be productive; resources that used to be considered “high end” can now be bought off the shelf, he said.
That’s one reason why people with disabilities are getting more vocal about their rights and their place in the world, he added.
The Law Is on Their Side
Sandy Masin, an accessibility consultant with TecAccess, noted during the webinar that federal contractors and subcontractors are required by law to take affirmative action to hire, retain and promote qualified individuals with disabilities. However, many contractors have moved toward using an online system as their primary, if not exclusive, method of accepting applications for employment, she said. While some of these systems might be accessible, others are completely inaccessible or only partially accessible.
Part of the reason for this problem, she said, is that technology is changing rapidly and accessibility is not keeping up.
However, federal contractors have a good reason to pay attention to the accessibility of such systems. “It is our understanding on the federal contractor side that very shortly the OFCCP [Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs] will be visiting to do on-site audits,” Masin said. In anticipation of such an audit, federal contractors should, at a minimum, provide applicants with instructions on another way to apply if they cannot access the online system, she said.
But it’s not just federal contractors who should worry about the accessibility of their employment sites, said Vanessa Williams, TecAccess vice president of training and legal affairs, during the webinar. Private employers covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) must avoid discrimination against people with disabilities throughout the recruitment, application and interview process. That’s why these employers can face a challenge if their sites are inaccessible.
“Many companies are moving toward using the Internet as their sole means of recruiting, posting jobs openings and collecting resumes and applications,” Williams said. “If their employment web site is not accessible, they may be opening themselves up to liability.”
As a result, private employers, too, must ensure that an alternate application process is available in case their online site is inaccessible. However, Williams said, this opens up the risk of human error if applicants who apply outside of the online system are treated differently than those who apply online.
“An easier alternative is to make your employment web site accessible to people with disabilities,” she said. “It levels the playing field and is a much easier process.”
Create a Plan
“Accessibility is an ongoing process, not a one-time occurrence,” Masin said. However, she recommended that organizations get started by creating a plan with a series of action steps such as:
“Social media are just exploding,” Williams added, “But a lot of those sites are not accessible.”
“If you are using these areas to find employees and the areas are not accessible to people with disabilities, that’s another area in which your company can be exposed to some liability because you are closing people off from being able to apply for a job,” she explained.
Employers can find a collection of resources on accessibility through Earnworks, a free disability employment consulting service funded by the DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). One such resource, the Accessible Systems Racing League (ASRL), is an easy-to-use tool that highlights barriers job seekers and employees with disabilities might face when trying to access a company’s career site or other online HR recruiting and hiring tools and systems.
Access Isn’t Enough
Although it’s a critical step in ensuring ADA compliance, accessibility alone is not enough to ensure that people with disabilities are treated the same as every other applicant.
Another obstacle employers must face is attitudinal barriers.
“Most of the things that hold us back are fear—fear of the unknown,” said Pough. When it comes to people with disabilities, he said, some employers fear the costs of accommodations and wonder if employees with disabilities will be productive or miss a lot of work. But he said such fears are unfounded.
“People with disabilities do not cost more to employ than people without disabilities,” he said. “Disability employment research has shown that there is no significant difference between the productivity of people with disabilities and people without disabilities, particularly in knowledge-related businesses.” He added that “people with disabilities do not miss more work than people without disabilities.”
For example, when Walgreens drugstore chain opened a new distribution center in Anderson, S.C., the company decided that 30 percent of the people it would hire would have disabilities. The company exceeded that goal—with 42 percent of its employees having disabilities—but found that that site is 20 percent more productive than other distribution centers. “It’s not about charity; it’s a smart business decision,” Pough said.
One in three households has a connection to a person with a disability, he said. “From a business perspective, how would you feel if you were closing out one out of three of your customers?”
Organizations that dare to think differently and look deeper can find the value and stand apart in terms of profits and efficiency, he added.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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