Wanted: More People with Disabilities in the Workforce

May 5, 2010

Over the last three years, the Great Recession has been a major news topic in the United States, with the unemployment rate now running at nearly 10%. For people with disabilities (PwDs), unemployment has been a bigger story, with almost 14% of the PwD work force off the payrolls, according to March 2010 data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And a double whammy: while over 70% of the U.S. population is considered part of the labor force, the same data shows just 22% of the total PwD population participates in the labor force.  With 27 million Americans classified as having a disability, this means that just over 5 million of them are employed. Ideally, even at the overall U.S. unemployment rate of 10%, 17 million PwD’s, or 70% of the PwD population, should have a job. The 12 million missing PwDs, if they could actively search for, and ultimately land a job, could add 10% to the total U.S. work force — not a small number when one is looking for potential sources of additional productivity and wealth.

In reality, some of the PwDs are unable to hold a job for any reason due to their own specific disability, so the “12 million missing” figure is too optimistic. But there is no denying there are millions of PwDs relying on government subsidies, family support and other resources to get by, when they have specific skills, talents and expertise to perform satisfactorily in the work force when placed in the right role. Not to mention a unique outlook shaped by their almost daily efforts to resolve challenges which arise because of their specific disabilities. That they deal with adversity every day lends them the ability to work hard and develop creative solutions, which are two qualities essential to the success of any business.

It is easy to scapegoat business as the reason for the relatively low employment of PwDs, because of the prevailing attitude among some employers that PwDs do not provide as much added value to a business as someone who is not disabled. This only tells part of the story. There are two other factors that contribute to underemployment of PwDs: a hiring process that is structured in a way that does not allow PwDs an equal platform upon which to market themselves for jobs; and an educational level among PwDs that is lower than that of the general population.

Ludwig van Beethoven? The famous composer was not only deaf, but had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism.

Make no mistake, I am a true believer in the free market. People — disabled or not — should succeed and sell themselves hard on their own merits without the expectation of external assistance from the government. They should put into practice the values of working hard, overcoming challenges, and developing their own skills and experience to ultimately become indispensable to any employer requiring these credentials. A favorite quotation of mine, “The world always wins,” from Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner, is not a fatalistic acceptance of your role in the whole wide world, but rather a Realpolitik appraisal of where you stand, and what you can do to make a major, but realistic, difference in your global community.

This does not mean that businesses are exempt from addressing the issue of PwD underemployment. PwDs should compete on a fair, level playing field with those who are not disabled, so they can market their skills effectively and match themselves with employers who have a need for these skills. Yet, in reality, the prevailing myth that PwDs in the workforce cost too much and contribute little, a hiring process that limits access to PwD applicants, and the lack of educational opportunities for PwDs are three strikes against the ability of PwDs to be hired in the workplace, no matter how hard they work and how creative they are in getting themselves recognized.

Within many business organizations, there is a reluctance to hire PwDs largely because of long-held myths that they cannot contribute as well as those without disabilities, and also because the cost of accommodating PwD’s is thought to be prohibitively expensive. The current Think Beyond the Label campaign debunks these assumptions, and fortunately, more businesses and Fortune 500 companies are embracing the value of diversity in the workforce because it adds creativity, innovation and unique talent to their capabilities, providing them a critical competitive edge in a globalized world.

Companies that incorporate diversity into their hiring strategies usually harbor work environments that are wonderfully diverse, very interesting to work in, and allow new ideas and solutions to incubate. This translates into greater awareness of the essential value of PwDs in the workforce, and enables companies to scour the entire labor pool for the talent and skills they need, instead of limiting themselves to the pool of people who are not disabled. When companies underutilize PwD candidates in their hiring practices, there is a tendency for these companies to be less aware of the work contribution value of PwDs, so they miss out on unique skills, talents, and traits that may be harder to find in the non-disabled talent pool.

Identify the U.S. Congressman in this picture. (Hint: he represents the 2nd Congressional District of Rhode Island.)

The current hiring process contributes in a way to the above problem. For most companies, PwD job applicants share with non-PwD applicants the same process for applying for jobs, interviewing, and receiving job offers. That is an issue, because the (mostly online) process assumes you can see, hear, talk, and walk. Find a job you like online? Click on the “Apply Now” button. Fill out the information: your name, your address, your phone number, your employment history. (Can you do this when you’re blind?) Get a phone call from a hiring manager, asking for a phone interview. (What if you’re deaf?) Visit the company for an interview. (What if you’re in a wheelchair, and the building is not accessible?) The very nature of access to the online sites weeds out PwDs who otherwise have excellent skills and talents that any company would kill for.

While there is no denying that PwDs are just as talented as those who are not disabled, the educational system in the U.S. has not been uniform in its ability to provide opportunities for successful careers for PwDs. Partly because some PwDs students are not valued in the educational system, but more so because of disagreements on how best to educate PwDs, some disabled students go on to incredibly successful careers, while others are held back because the educational system has not afforded them the opportunity to unlock their talents and skills. This is a complex issue that merits an entirely new article focusing on education, but it is worth noting that if PwDs are evaluated on a case-by-case basis rather than within a set of assumptions, their skills and abilities can be more easily identified. Then, based on this information, they can be more effectively placed in the appropriate educational and professional tracks.

I do not knock the business world, particularly those companies I have worked with. Compared to 30 years ago, businesses today have been far more progressive in hiring, interviewing, and employing PwDs. More Fortune 500’s incorporate disability hiring in their diversity practices today than ever before. Yet, there are still many companies who, at best, are unaware of the potential value of PwDs for their businesses, representing a huge opportunity cost measured in lost productivity, missing wealth and, ultimately, a greater competitive edge.

Feel free to share your thoughts. If you would like to share experiences and stories that highlight the issues above, please post them here or send me an email.

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