When the Americans with Disabilities Act was initially passed, Congress recognized that more than 40 million Americans qualified as “Disabled.” Since then that number has increased as the courts gave expansive interpretation to the definition of a “disability.”
With 14 million people now out of work and no relief to the economic crisis in sight, what is the disabled job seeker to do? Most employers now understand that it is their obligation to make reasonable accommodation for the disabled, but some employers would argue that doing so gets much more difficult when businesses are trying to do more with less.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for persons with disabilities in October was 13.2—more than 50 percent higher than the overall national rate of 8.3. Still, there are nearly 10 times as many non-disabled job seekers as there are disabled unemployed.
With so many non-disabled people out of work, what advice can we offer the disabled?
The answer: Don’t give up. Just develop a Strategy.
In order to develop an effective strategy, nonprofits and employers must prepare to answer the following questions:
- What are the disabled job seeker’s skill sets?
- What levels of supervision and supports are required?
- How to provide awareness and sensitivity training for all employees?
- Why is inclusivity necessary during tough economic times?
What are the disabled job seeker’s skill sets?
To some, the disabled have been perceived as unproductive, unintelligible, unreliable and irrelevant participants of society. While untrue, these perceptions color the reception that employers give to disabled applicants. In order for this to change, the skill sets of the disabled must become known.
Working with the disabled, particularly the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled, I have learned many are capable of organizing, customer service, communication, commitment, bookkeeping, and merchandising to name a few. These skillsets can be used and are valuable in the following ways:
- in Department Stores, where each brand or clothing section requires organization that lends itself to disabled workers' skill sets. For example, one of my consumers commutes from Brooklyn to Mount Vernon daily to work in a major department store as a stock and merchandising clerk.
- as greeters at stores, office buildings or community events.
- as receptions and telephone operators within companies and organizations. Surely, a person with limited mobility (inclusive of those in wheelchairs or walking with canes) can perform many functions at a fixed post, i.e., customer service desk, receptionist or security attendant.
- doing simple bookkeeping with smaller departments or organizations
- and we have all seen the book checkout counters at libraries or the coat check stations when the disabled are frequently employed.
The commitment and loyalty of the disabled are unmatched. They report to work daily, under any circumstances and do so with a smile.
What has happened in our society is that we view people by their limitations and not by their potential. We accept the visual and not the internal. The above list, which is not exclusive, demonstrates that there are employment opportunities for which the disabled are as prepared as other groups, like youth, seniors and veterans.
What levels of supervision and supports are required?
As with all employees, supervision and direction are necessary. Human resources policies and procedures provide structure in order that everyone can be productive within their task.
With the disabled, this is no different. For example, for people with autism, the more consistent the routine and direction from management the more successful they will be at any task. Taking the department store example above, if the autistic person is assigned to sweaters and has to organize by sizes and colors this will be done daily without hesitation and or resistance.
An added valued of employing the disabled is their external support network. Most disabled individuals are connected to a nonprofit organization (like my employer, EDCSPIN) that provides job training, coaching assistance and onsite direction when appropriate. This supports not just the individual but the employer as well.
How to provide awareness and sensitivity training for all employees
Training is an employment requirement. As you read in newspapers and watch on the local news, sensitivity training and cultural awareness have become workplace norms. Be it at a police department or an airline, we have become a society where everyone—employers and customers alike—deserve to be treated equally. At my organization, we use our annual “Workplace Respect” training to address these issues. This involves less than two hours per employee each year.
Why is inclusivity necessary during tough economic times?
Inclusivity should be automatic, without pretense, and an integral part of employment. In general—and more so in tough economic times—differences of perspectives, ideas, interpretations and perceptions position organizations and companies to weather the seasons of uncertainty. These are the moments when we must be inclusive—of every able person, available idea/perspective and group.
Accommodation in unaccommodating economic times begins with acknowledging that we have not given every group—especially the disabled—the opportunity to contribute to society. Then we can address the questions above and develop an effective strategy.
EDCSPIN is a nonprofit social service organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for persons with mental and developmental disabilities and their families. Its staff of more than 500 people serves more than 1,000 consumers each month, offering programs that include crisis intervention, Medicaid service coordination, after-school programs, and residential programs, to name just a few. It is headquartered in Brooklyn, New York.