By Sarah Ryther Francom
Temple Grandin, renowned autism spokesperson, is known for saying, “The world needs all kinds of minds.” This is also true for the business world. Hiring individuals with disabilities not only benefits the individual hired, but also benefits your business, employees, customers, and the community at large.
Leah Lobato, director of the Governor’s Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities, part of the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation, has seen countless lives changed when companies recruit and hire workers with disabilities. She says that one in five Americans has a disability, and 30 percent of families have a family member with a disability, with numbers anticipated to increase.
A win-win hire
Hiring individuals with disabilities isn’t just a feel-good idea—it can have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line. Individuals with disabilities often bring a diverse range of skills and attributes to the workplace and can enhance the team dynamic.
“Individuals with disabilities have had to problem-solve a lot of different situations in their life due to their condition, so they bring a unique perspective,” Lobato said. “The diversity of people with disabilities and what they bring to a company is really broad.”
Beyond bringing diverse skills to the workplace, individuals with disabilities often have a strong sense of loyalty to their employers, Lobato has found.
Kristy Chambers, CEO of Columbus Community Center, a nonprofit organization serving adults and teens with disabilities, says individuals with disabilities often fit seamlessly into a company. “When you find that right fit, they become a part of the work culture, and they truly can be an inspiration to their coworkers, customers, and stakeholders,” she says.
Lobato and Chambers agree that having a diverse workforce that includes individuals with disabilities is an attribute that resonates with customers.
“When a customer sees a diverse workforce, it raises their comfort in your business,” Lobato says.
Overcoming common fears
Lobato says it’s normal for a business owner or manager to fear the potential consequences of hiring an individual with disabilities but that misinformation is often the real culprit. “One of the most common issues I run into with businesses I talk to is fear. Fear of disability. Fear of how to communicate with people who have disabilities. Fear of the legal things that might come up when hiring them.”
Lobato acknowledges that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can be overwhelming. She advises companies to seek guidance from her office or a nonprofit, like Columbus Community Center, when beginning to actively recruit individuals with disabilities.
“The ADA provides a clear definition of what a disability is and provides a clear understanding of what the hiring guidelines are,” she says. “It provides support and protections for a person with disabilities, but it also clearly outlines what a business can and cannot do.”
How to provide reasonable accommodations is one of the most common questions employers have asked ADA compliance, says Kevin Keyes, chief program officer at Columbus.
“There’s greater fear than what should be there about providing reasonable accommodations,” he says. “Studies have shown that the cost of providing accommodations is overestimated.”
“A lot of the folks that come into employment with disabilities already have supports in place,” Keyes adds. “That’s what [organizations like Columbus] do. We’re not only there to support the individual, but also the employer.”
Companies with questions about how to create reasonable accommodations can seek guidance from the state, Lobato says. She points to a woodshop created for the Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired as an example of what the state can help with.
Beyond state assistance, businesses that actively recruit and hire individuals with disabilities can receive financial aid to help cover associated costs, including work opportunity tax credits, small business tax credits, and grants to establish workplace accommodations and vocational training.
The biggest piece of advice Lobato offers all employers is to treat individuals with disabilities just as you would any other employee.
Stephanie Mackay, chief innovation officer at Columbus, says employers should view hiring individuals with disabilities as an opportunity to strengthen their workforce.
Chambers points out that communities are the greatest beneficiaries when individuals with disabilities land and keep good jobs. “Employers who get it and understand the benefits of hiring individuals with disabilities realize that they are contributing to the community by hiring somebody who may be more challenged on gaining that employment. This allows individuals to not be a burden on the community, because without employment they become an individual who relies on entitlements. Those who participate on the employer end realize that there’s an economic benefit to everyone—the employee, company and the community at large.”
ADA Guidelines for Employers:
Employers covered by the ADA have to make sure that people with disabilities:
- have an equal opportunity to apply for jobs and to work in jobs for which they are qualified
- have an equal opportunity to be promoted once they are working
- have equal access to benefits and privileges of employment that are offered to other employees, such as employer-provided health insurance or training
- are not harassed because of their disability
Basic ADA hiring rules:
•The ADA does not allow you to ask questions about disability or use medical examinations until after you make someone a conditional job offer.
- The ADA strictly limits the circumstances under which you may ask questions about disability or require medical examinations of employees.
- The ADA requires you to consider whether any reasonable accommodation(s) would enable the individual to perform the job’s essential functions and/or would reduce any safety risk the individual might pose.
- Once a person with a disability has started working, actual performance, and not the employee’s disability, is the best indication of the employee’s ability to do the job.
- With limited exceptions, you must keep confidential any medical information you learn about an applicant or employee.