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Michael wanted to find a job near his home in Washington, D.C., but he needed some help. Though he was capable of working full time, his disability made interviewing and interacting with co-workers difficult.
Michael went to the Jewish Social Service Agency's (JSSA's) specialized employment program, where he practiced interviewing and responding to common office situations. He wanted an office job working with computers, and JSSA was able to help him find a job that met not only his requirements but the requirements of the company. Companies are reporting numerous benefits from hiring people with disabilities, including filling positions with high turnover rates and creating a more inclusive work environment.
Michael's experience working with JSSA is an example of person-centered career planning: finding a job that is based on the individual's ability and preferences rather than simply finding an open space.
A wide range of organizations and programs work with both job candidates and company HR departments to offer job training and placement services. Most use person-centered planning to place these individuals. Some have expanded their efforts to help companies in their communities better understand available options, and the results have been promising, say disability advocates.
Person-centered planning has resulted in a much-needed paradigm shift in how people with disabilities obtain the services they need. Instead of a caregiver placing the individual wherever there happens to be a job opening, the individual's strengths, weaknesses, wants, needs and abilities are assessed and the individual has significant control over the process. The process is usually conducted with a team of people including the individual and the caregiver.
The Institute for Community Inclusion reports that person-centered planning improves retention and job satisfaction simply because the individual chooses to pursue a job that he or she wants and is therefore more likely to be satisfied with it.
Improving the Model
Person-centered career planning makes the process of finding and retaining a job easier, but there are still many willing and capable people left out of the workforce. Job placement and training services are looking for new strategies to get people with disabilities employed.
JSSA specialists use formal and informal tools to assess an individual's abilities, skills and needs. Tom Liniak, director of specialized employment for JSSA, said they look for what motivates the individual or, as is sometimes the case, something that will get him or her motivated.
Then JSSA counselors immerse the person in the industry while helping him or her in the specific areas where they need support. For example, many of the people who come to JSSA for help are struggling with communication skills, so JSSA helps them prepare for interviews.
JSSA also builds relationships with the businesses around them, said Liniak. JSSA's team talks to local employers to identify their needs. Team members look for positions with a high turnover rate and positions that are difficult to fill. They look for niche areas where one of their potential employees could not only fit in but solve the company's problem.
The Sierra Group Inc. has been practicing person-centered career planning on a national level for years. Headquartered in Philadelphia, it works in communities around the U.S. to educate businesses on how to work with people with disabilities, including leading employees through hypothetical scenarios to learn how to best work with co-workers with special needs.
Janet Fiore, CEO of The Sierra Group, said that businesses have been very receptive to this kind of training and outreach ever since the implementation of a 2013 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1972 which requires any company that works with the federal government in any capacity to employ enough workers with disabilities to constitute at least 7 percent of its workforce. This means that companies now have to track how many people with disabilities they employ, and once that became necessary, Fiore said, "Companies started to take outreach seriously."
The Sierra Group started as an advocacy group on Capitol Hill. It now works with large organizations such as Tiffany and Co., Comcast, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Better Service, Higher Retention
Comcast works with The Sierra Group and similar organizations to recruit and train individuals with disabilities. According to Michael Cox, senior vice president of talent acquisition for Comcast, working with these services and hiring people with disabilities helps "foster an inclusive work environment." Following the amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1972, Comcast asks its workers, through a periodic survey, if they have a disability. The goal is to make employees feel comfortable taking the survey and disclosing whether they have a disability, Cox said.
Cox claims that hiring more people with disabilities helps Comcast better connect to its customers. Comcast has been working to make its products and customer service more accessible to people with disabilities, And having a company composed of "individuals who represent our community … helps us be a better service provider," Cox said.
According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), once individuals with disabilities have found a good match, their job retention rates are comparatively high. Marriott, for example, found that the turnover rate for employees hired through a program for people with special needs was 6 percent while their overall turnover rate was 52 percent. Liniak says JSSA's placements at CVS and Enterprise Rent-a-Car have had a 100 percent retention rate.
Working closely with companies allows organizations like The Sierra Group to find niche jobs that may not be attractive to members of the general public but fit the abilities of someone they are working with. For example, someone on the autism spectrum might be able to hyperfocus on one task or enjoy the repetition of something like making copies.
Cox says that Comcast's hiring process for people with disabilities is no different than its normal hiring process, apart from providing reasonable accommodations. The Sierra Group and the other disability employment services Comcast works with function like any other recruiter. This makes hiring people with disabilities a relatively simple process, Cox said.
Employing someone with a disability "can be a huge win-win instead of [just] a feel-good," Liniak said.
Claire Smith is a freelance writer in Rockville, Md., who contributes to various publications and blogs and the website of the Madison House Autism Foundation.
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