Beyond boundaries

Employees with disabilities can help companies succeed

Posted: Sunday, November 19, 2006

Hiring employees with physical disabilities will probably help your company financially, disability advocates believe, but some workplace barriers might need to be overcome for people with disabilities to really thrive on the job.

"Customers prefer to do business with companies that hire people with disabilities," says John Miller, vice president of AHEDD, a private, non-profit, Pennsylvania- and Delaware-based organization with a mission to employ of persons with disabilities.

Nancy Starnes, vice president and chief of staff of the National Organization on Disability (NOD), agrees.

"Studies have demonstrated that the general public has a favorable opinion of companies whose workforce reflects the demographic makeup of the community. Since people with disabilities represent roughly 15 percent of every community, companies would do well to incorporate outreach messages to attract this underutilized asset," Starnes says.

One in five

Nearly 20 percent of working adults age 21-64 report a disabling condition, Miller notes, citing that for older workers, the percentage with a disability is even higher.

"Bottom line: A significant number of current employees and the labor pool are persons with disabilities," Miller says.

But despite the numbers of disabled workers currently employed, some still face issues that hinder their ability to find and retain a job.

"The workplace obstacles are as varied as the individual who encounters them," notes Starnes. "Each person who is part of the same disability grouping (mobility disability, blind/visually impaired, deaf/hearing impaired, mental illness, cognitive disability or health condition) may function in a very different way than others in the same group. For instance, there are some individuals with quadraplegia that can walk and others that must use wheelchairs for mobility.

"The greatest obstacle is attitudinal - focusing on the disabilities rather than the abilities."

"Barriers can come in all shapes in sizes," says AHEDD's Miller. "Some persons might have transportation problems getting to work, or because of structural issues, might have difficulty getting into a workplace.

"Some persons might have difficulty assimilating new information, and therefore, may benefit from a modified orientation or training. Finally, some barriers are attitudinal, in which an employer or co-workers might project deficiencies about a person's job performance simply because they have a physical, mental or emotional impairment."

Different approach

Employers can help overcome the unemployment/ underemployment of people with disabilities, according to Starnes.

"Corporate diversity goals should include outreach, employment, training and advancement goals for people with disabilities," Starnes says. "CEOs should champion the importance of people with disabilities as part of the diversity menu."

Starnes also recommends that employers offer up information about disabled workers about to be hired.

"Advance information to be shared with new co-workers can be helpful," Starnes says, while noting that a new disabled employee should be informed about workplace conditions as well, including potential physical difficulties. Learning as much as possible about the 'corporate culture' can help people fit in quickly. Practicing any navigational necessities that get an individual to the job on time demonstrate an appreciation for the job."

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