By: Paolo Gaudiano
People with disabilities represent a large segment of the U.S. population whose increased inclusion in the workforce could yield great benefits for society: nearly 13% of the U.S. population identifies as having a disability, but nearly 82% are unemployed. And although the severity of certain disabilities makes employment impractical, most individuals with disabilities encounter barriers that prevent them from obtaining employment in roles for which they are fully qualified.
On October 26 and 27 of this year, I had the honor of moderating a panel on “Entrepreneurship, Technology and Disability” as part of an event titled Technology Changes Everything: Innovating to Include People of All Abilities in a More Diverse Workforce. The event, organized by the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University’s ILR School, drew nearly 200 attendees from a variety of backgrounds and locations.
The event organizer, Susanne Bruyère, is Professor of Disability Studies and Director of the Yang-Tan Institute. In her words, “A diverse workforce brings with it a richness of perspective, problem-solving ability and creativity. Identifying individuals with disabilities for successful leadership cultivation among your human capital and using effective practices to bring them into desired leadership roles is an opportunity waiting to happen.”
In fact, it is my opinion that every leader and every human being who strives to become more inclusive, regardless of their own abilities, would have benefited both personally and professionally from attending the event.
On the personal side, attending this kind of event is crucial for learning that people with disabilities lead full lives, and that their awe-inspiring achievements are a testament to the resilience of the human spirit; it is also a great way for those of us who have not had to deal with a disability to gain familiarity with the realities of living with a disability, and to become more comfortable when interacting with people with disabilities.
From a business perspectives, the event gave compelling evidence that this largely untapped segment of the population represents a tremendous opportunity. For one thing, given the increasing competition for skilled talent, it is simply bad business not to tap this talent pool, especially when you consider that in order to overcome the obstacles they face in their daily lives, these individuals have demonstrated uncommon capabilities that translate into superior performance. This point was consistently echoed by the impressive lineup of speakers and panelists from leading corporations, including Accenture, Bloomberg, CISCO, EY, Google, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft and SAP. All of these organizations have established initiatives to work with people with disabilities, and all of them reported positive impact and ROI.
In addition, many of these companies reported quantitative evidence that certain types of disabilities actually enhance highly valuable skills. The most compelling examples involved working with people on the Autism spectrum, whose performance on certain tasks requiring attention to detail, such as Quality Assurance, substantially exceeds that of normally-abled people. For instance, during a panel moderated by Marcia Scheiner of Integrate Autism Employment Advisors, James Mahoney, Chief Quality Officer and Head of the Autism at Work program at JPMorgan Chase, found that individuals on the Autism spectrum outperformed their non-autistic peers, with productivity increases ranging between 48% and 120%. Similar results are seen consistently by Rajesh Anandan, CEO of ULTRAtesting, one of the growing number of companies employing individuals with disabilities to provide outsourced services.
Given these types of results, one may wonder why unemployment is so high among people with disabilities. A common problem revolves around recruiting: companies often do not have processes to help them recruit candidates with disabilities, which results in significant challenges for applicants. Alan Richter, President of QED Consultingand founding member of the Centre for Global Inclusion, led a panel focused on tools that support recruitment, online screening, selection, and job matching, including Logi-Serve, HireVue, ROIKOI and Pymetrics. Employers seeking to expand their talent pool should explore the impressive range of services offered by these firms. An additional group that focuses specifically on creating employment opportunities is Nextbillion.org, a non-profit that helps students with disabilities connect with mentors and with job opportunities in the tech industry.
While these companies are helping to increase access to employment, many people with disabilities find self-employment and entrepreneurship an attractive alternative. In fact, individuals with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to be self-employed as individuals with no disabilities. Kate Caldwell, Assistant Professor of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, described some of her efforts at the Chicagoland Entrepreneurship Education for People with Disabilities (CEED), an organization that supports people with disabilities in pursuing entrepreneurship as a pathway to employment. Diego Mariscal, CEO and Chief Disabled Officer of 2Gether-International.org, described the motivations the led him to create this worldwide network of young disabled leaders that raises awareness through advocacy campaigns and supports young disabled entrepreneurs.
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