Considering Employees with Disabilities

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One of my favorite SHRM sessions was an enlightening discussion of best practices to successfully attract, employ and retain people with disabilities. Nadine Vogel, founder and president of Springboard Consulting, a Mendham, N.J. firm, was the presenter.

She started the discussion by quoting a KPMG leader, who stated that “supporting people with disabilities in the workforce and workplace is not just a strategic advantage, it is a business imperative.”

That notion is supported by numbers. Vogel pointed out that people with disabilities are the largest and fastest growing minority segment in the world, representing over 750 million individuals. With older people leaving the workforce in large numbers, “the alternative workforce of today may eventually become the needed workforce of tomorrow,” said Vogel.

This population represents four distinct segments: adults with disabilities, maturing workers with age-related disabilities, veterans with service-related disabilities and employees who have children and other dependents with special needs.

Vogel listed some myths and realities about people with disabilities in the workplace. While some employers believe that hiring individuals with disabilities will result in absenteeism, the opposite actually occurs. Additionally, employees with disabilities tend to be loyal to their employer. And because they have to make a greater effort just to function each day, this segment tends to be extremely innovative, said Vogel.

But the crux of the session focused on organizational readiness. Vogel argues that if an employer institutes policies designed to recruit and retain individuals with disabilities as a knee-jerk reaction to legislation, “you will get sued if you’re not organizationally ready.”

Instead, employees need to be smart when they’re employing people with disabilities. First, there is the compliance piece. If you’re hiring a service-disabled veteran, for instance, there are some training requirements mandated by the Uniformed Services Employment & Reemployment Rights Act. Employers need to be mindful of such rules.

If you aren’t organizationally ready to employ people with disabilities, Vogel suggest easing yourself in. One idea is to host a Disability Mentor Day. This means bringing in 10 or 12 college students for one day to job shadow managers. The managers get to see what it’s like working side by side with someone with a disability. And since college students aren’t legally employees, managers can have an open dialogue with these individuals.

This effort could work well for those who recruit on college campuses, said Vogel. On-campus recruiting typically doesn’t yield employees with disabilities, but Vogel urged those who work in this area to develop relationships with the director of the program for students with disabilities, which every school has.

Another approach is disability etiquette and awareness training, the number-one global best practice at most multinational companies, said Vogel. This can help managers feel comfortable engaging with employees with disabilities, and it can help the employees feel comfortable in their work environment as well.

Vogel also suggested “a day in the life” training. This means having employers pick a disability and “become that for the day.” You would interview the person before he or she starts the process and ask them, why did they select this disability? What do they fear? At the end of the experiment, you ask the person about the experience and how it raised his or her awareness.

Vogel shared a few holidays employers could celebrate within their organizations in support of those with disabilities:

  • October – National Disability Employment Awareness Month
  • December 3rd – International Day of Persons with Disabilities
  • July – the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Next, Vogel relayed a few best practices around accommodating people with disabilities. First, Vogel suggests that organizations establish a Reasonable Accommodation Committee, which is a task force that serves to assist management in determining eligibility for reasonable accommodation.

Second, employers should place a disability disclosure tool on their Intranets. This will help employees in need of special accommodations but fear disclosing their disability.

And what about emergency preparedness? Vogel says that companies’ emergency evacuation plans should ask employees whether they would need assistance in the event of an emergency, and if so, what type? But the wording should ensure that the person doesn’t have to disclose disability, she added.

Vogel wrapped up the session with one key message: “It doesn’t matter how small you start,” she said. “Just get started.”

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