Having worked on Affirmative Action Plans with Summit clients over the past two years, I discovered a troubling similarity among them. The rates for the utilization and recruitment of employees with disabilities were, sadly, at zero. Now, without any doubt, Summit’s client organizations are among the friendliest, most welcoming and accommodating I’ve ever worked with – so why would their engagement with America’s disabled workforce ever be zero? Since quantitative data on disabled Americans is readily available, research quickly reveals that all of us, across our nation, lack an informed awareness of the boundaries of disability and of the valuable abilities lying outside those boundaries.
As workers ourselves, we are aware that persons with disabilities (as a group and individually) are consistently underemployed. We may know or work with disabled colleagues and, if so, often admire their determination and accomplishments. But our admiration does not equal informed awareness. For an employer, informed awareness might begin with these three steps:
- Become and remain aware that disabled persons able to seek employment are not, obviously, completely disabled.
- Consciously appraise the relevant abilities of the disabled applicant – as you would with any other applicant.
- Become and remain conversant in the “reasonable accommodation” requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), because these requirements need not be expensive or onerous.
As to employer reluctance caused by cost concerns over making reasonable accommodations for disabled employees, a study of 71 accommodations at a large national retailer reported in the Mental and Physical Disability Law Reporter, 20(2), 278–286, found that 99% of accommodations for all employees with disabilities cost under $500, 72% of those incurred no cost, and the average cost of accommodations for employees with behavioral disabilities (mental illness, stress, anxiety disorders) was $0. Related studies support these findings, but even more importantly, The Wall Street Journal, pg. B5 of January 3, 2019 reports on the increasingly necessary costs of a stable, values-driven workforce:
Some of America’s largest companies are proposing that a good job can lead to a free college education ….
Walt Disney Co., Discover Financial Services and Yum Brands Inc.’s” Taco Bell are among the high-profile employers sending front-line workers back to school, often paying the cost of tuition, fees, books and other expenses upfront and in full. The companies say the benefits of a content and potentially better-trained staff outweigh the costs.
Based on recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of July 2018, our disabled workforce now numbers 15.1 million Americans. And this workforce includes both veterans and nonveterans – a fact informing our awareness of the causes and consequences of disability. Here is a significant, underutilized pool of working age Americans that employers across the nation are failing to target in their talent acquisition plans and recruitment efforts. According to the Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and Disability:IN (formerly the US Business Leadership Network), this workforce and its talents remain underutilized and even unrecognized by employers for three reasons:
- A lack of understanding of the scope of the talent available;
- A lack of understanding of the potential benefits; and
- Misconceptions as to the return on investment in disability inclusion.
Complex socio-economic trends now affect all employers: 10,000 baby boomers reach the age of 65 every day and many of these boomers are deciding not to retire or are starting a new career with a new employer. This (mostly unexpected) future requires employers to become aware that inclusion of the disabled is as critical a part of talent acquisition and diversification as insuring against the costs (direct and indirect) of the chronic health conditions already impacting our aging workforce. The Center on an Aging Society at Georgetown University estimates that by 2020, half of the U.S. population will have at least one chronic condition and one-quarter will be living with multiple chronic conditions. And our veterans must be considered as well. At least 47,000 service members have been wounded in action and nearly 25% of our veterans will be returning home with “invisible wounds.” Disability now becomes a burden shared by growing segments of our workforce and our general population, requiring values-based responses and solutions.
Further, companies who have implemented robust recruiting plans which target the disabled also report tangible financial benefits – on average, they are twice as likely to provide higher shareholder returns than the average of their peer groups. According to employer surveys conducted by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), the direct benefits to accommodating disabled new hires and retaining these same workers include:
- Retained a valued employee: 89%
- Increased the employee’s productivity: 72%
- Eliminated costs associated with training a new employee: 61%
- Increased the employee’s attendance: 56%
- Increased diversity of the company: 41%
- Saved workers’ compensation and other insurance costs: 30%
- Hired a qualified person with a disability: 15%
- Promoted and employee: 11%
The Indirect benefits:
- Improved interactions with co-workers: 63%
- Increased overall company morale: 62%
- Increased overall company productivity: 56%
- Increased safety: 46%
- Improved interactions with customers: 46%
- Increased overall company attendance: 41%
- Increased profitability: 29%
- Increased customer base: 18%
A 2017 survey undertaken by the National Business and Disability Council revealed conscious market preferences and values, and found that “66% of consumers will purchase goods and services from a business that features persons with disabilities in their advertising, while 78% will purchase goods and services from a business that takes steps to ensure easy access for individuals with disabilities at their physical locations.”
Employers who have built an inclusive workplace cite four key actions for attracting, hiring, retaining and advancing diverse talent.These have been categorized by Accenture Research in its 2018 report, “Getting to Equal”, as follows:
- Ensure that disabled persons are represented in the workplace and practices are implemented that encourage and advance persons with disabilities.
- Provide disabled employees with accessible tools, technologies and other accommodations. Cultivate greater values-awareness, via formal training programs for those without disabilities, to enhance integration across teams.
- Promote an inclusive culture throughout the organization beginning with recruitment efforts, disability education programs, employee resource groups, and events.
- Empower. Offer mentoring and coaching, skilling and re-skilling programs to ensure that persons with disabilities continue to grow and succeed. Disabled persons should be represented at all levels in the organization including top leadership positions.
In the Wall Street Journal article cited above, Disney CEO Bob Iger declares, “We want to create upward mobility for our employees.” Well, as opposed to the full cost of an undergraduate education, a screen reader for a blind computer user costs 10 minutes time for a free download. Perhaps one of the greater errors employers might make in future-proofing their organizations would be to forfeit the abilities of the disabled. As Tom Foley of the World Institute on Disability explains: “I’m a blind guy… I can do research online. I read the Pew report [on the disabled] when it was emailed to me. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t do that as a blind person. But with access to the internet and access to … technology, all those opportunities are open to me…I can become better educated, I can get a better job, I can pay my mortgage, I can pay my taxes, and I can send my kids to college.”
Vice President- Human Resources