By Mark Perriello
It’s important to remember that hiring Americans with disabilities should be no more difficult or risky than hiring anybody else. While we are not a monolithic group, there are certainly qualified, hardworking and dedicated individuals with disabilities who are ready, willing, and able to work.
Yet, unemployment rates for people with disabilities remain alarmingly high. According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), the unemployment rate for people with disabilities in July 2016 stood at 11.1 percent. This compares with 4.9 percent for people without disabilities.
These numbers indicate that many well-intentioned people with disabilities remain on the economic sidelines through no fault of their own. Even if someone wants to work, they are often confronted with employers unwilling to take a risk on a person with a disability, because the employer is uncomfortable, fears being sued, or has low expectations of a person’s capabilities. Much needs to change in order for a person with a disability to land the job over their equally qualified able-bodied competition.
First and foremost, we must remove the level of discomfort that many people feel around individuals with disabilities. All the government programs designed to help with the employment of people with disabilities, of which there are many, will not help if the person behind the hiring desk does not feel at ease talking with an applicant with a disability. For example, what does one do if the person being interviewed doesn’t have hands to shake? Not being able to express this traditional gesture of welcome could throw a person off guard if they have never encountered the situation.
Further complicating the situation, the hiring individual may start to doubt that this person can do the job. How is he or she going to type? Can the applicant even open the front door to our business on their own?
Second, we need to better familiarize hiring managers with certain aspects of the law. I hear this type of statement all the time. “Once I hire a person with a disability, I’ll never be able to fire them if things do not work out.” The simple truth is that a person with a disability must live up to the expectations of the job. If they do not, then a corrective course of action is warranted, up to and including firing if necessary.
The follow-up conversation often goes like this, “Can’t they sue?” While the short answer is yes, the truth is more complex. First, if you took all the appropriate steps before the firing (warnings, poor performance evaluations, etc.) then there is little need to worry. Additionally, most fired employees shy away from suing as the process can be expensive, drawn out, and painful.
Thankfully, several organizations are stepping up to the plate to address these very real barriers to employment. Take, for instance, new and promising work under way at the United States Business Leadership Network (USBLN) and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), my former employer. USBLN is the leading organization uniting business around disability inclusion, and AAPD is the nation’s largest disability advocacy organization. The two organizations have partnered to create the Disability Equality Index (DEI).
The DEI is the first of its kind corporate rating system, which enables companies to assess their performance on a range of disability inclusion practices, from culture and enterprise-wide access, to employment practices and community engagement. Through this effort, many companies are evaluating their efforts on disability, and are strengthening their resolve to hire and retain more employees with disabilities.
Further, in a bold and encouraging move, one of the first items of business that Secretary of Labor Tom Perez undertook when he was appointed by President Obama was to revise regulations regarding Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (Section 503). These newly revised regulations require qualifying federal contractors set a 7 percent aspirational utilization goal for people with disabilities. Federal contractors represent 22 percent of the American workforce, so the impact of Section 503 on the employment of people with disabilities cannot be overstated.
The utilization goal of Section 503 will certainly help to level the playing field for many people with disabilities seeking gainful employment. However, true and lasting change will occur when more people with disabilities work alongside others, and succeed or fail based on their own merit. Only then will hiring managers and others begin to realize that hiring people with disabilities is no more difficult or risky than hiring anyone else.
About the Author
Mark Perriello is president and CEO of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce. He is the former president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), which works to improve the lives of people with disabilities by acting as a convener, connector, and catalyst for change, increasing the political and economic power of people with disabilities. He remains committed to improving inclusivity in our nation’s workforce.