There are many misconceptions about people with disabilities in the workforce: there just aren’t that many of them; the cost to employ them is too high; they take more sick time and leaves of absence. Along with structural barriers, these perceptions lead to much lower employment rates in the disabled community.
Despite the current overall unemployment rate of around 4 percent in the U.S. and 7 percent in the EU, a new study from American Behavioral Scientist puts the unemployment rate for people with disabilities at a staggering 83 percent in the U.S.
The average person has 22 years of experience in the workforce before they begin to take disability leave, says Mary Dale Walters, senior vice president at Allsup, which helps people with disabilities navigate the U.S. Social Security program and provides employment support. This represents a massive, untapped pool of experienced workers available as new hires or rehires.
In order to bring more people with disabilities into the workforce, HR leaders need to think more about how to create disability-friendly cultures at their organizations.
Communication is Key
The first step, Walters says, is understanding that most people with disabilities want to work. Reasonable accommodations will allow them to more seamlessly join with a team — often at a cost less than employers might think.
Such strategies start with communication, and that has to begin at the very top of an organization. The message has to be clear: Workers with disabilities are welcome and valued.
“You are what you do for a living in this country, whether we like it or not, and it brings a lot of self-worth and value to you. And to have your coworkers respond to you in a positive way goes a long way in supporting somebody’s return into that environment from a cultural standpoint,” Walters says.
Richard Propes, a program director with the Indiana Bureau of Developmental Disability Services, says a cultural shift can often begin in the personal sphere and move into the professional one.
Propes was born with spina bifida, and is a paraplegic double amputee. When he was young, his parents were told he would likely be institutionalized all his life. Instead, he graduated from college and launched an ambitious career, and now has more than 30 years of workforce experience. “What I often find is that openness to disability within companies usually starts with someone who’s been comfortable with it, or who’s had a loved one who has a disability. And they know that some of those myths and stereotypes aren’t true, and so they create a program where they consciously try to recruit,” Propes says.
See and Be Seen
One of the most common ways of accommodating workers with disabilities is supporting working remotely most or all of the time. But this can exacerbate another cultural issue for people with disabilities: isolation.
Walters says employers should find opportunities to bring offsite workers with disabilities onsite to interact with their colleagues. She also recommends using technology, such as video conferencing, to encourage team interaction.
Often, just seeing and being seen can go a long way toward breaking down the myths and misconceptions about workers with disabilities. Keep in mind that many disabilities are also “invisible.” So it’s important to acknowledge and talk about how issues like diabetes, hearing impairment or mental illness can affect a worker’s need for accommodation.
Find the Right Partners
It’s important for HR leaders to find strong partners in creating disability-friendly cultures. This includes employment-networking agencies geared toward the disabled community such as Allsup, as well as training and educational groups dedicated to moving disabled people into the workforce. Propes points to the Erskine Green Training Institute in Muncie, Indiana, which has an 80 percent success rate in training and placing people with disabilities in market-rate jobs.
Partners can also advise employers about disability regulations in the U.S. and abroad. Even today, many people in HR are not well-versed in the Americans with Disabilities Act or the European Accessibility Act, Walters says.
For example, when a person receiving federal disability benefits returns to the workforce, their Medicare coverage usually continues for several years afterward, she says — meaning that in the U.S. it can actually cost an employer less to hire a person with a disability than one who would be added to the company health plan.
With the right attitude and allies, organizations can begin a cultural change that benefits people with disabilities — and their employers.
“I think in some ways culturally, we’ve approached it from the wrong way. We’ve kind of approached it from the touchy-feely [side],” Propes says. “Really, it just makes good economic sense to hire us: Twenty percent of the population is identified as having some form of disability. So if you rule out all of those people, it’s an untapped resource.”