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Disabled face adversity in workforce

Nov, 8th 2012

By Matt Stafford

With unemployment at a national average of 7.9 percent, it was a very big issue in the election and a persistent theme in media coverage. Something that hasn’t been covered is the fact that only 32 percent of people with disabilities are working, according to a report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in July 2012.

The fact is, when there is a recession, people with disabilities are the hardest hit. In markets where people looking for work are plentiful, employers would rather have the able-bodied. Some of this is compounded by negative perceptions and stereotypes.
Some of the major ones are that people with disabilities are not as productive, difficult to fire and that the accommodations they might need would be costly and horribly disruptive to the workplace.

Some of these stereotypes are compounded by high profile stories of abuse circulating through the media. In 2004, Johnny Venzon Jr. retired from his job as a California police officer after he was declared disabled for his addiction to gambling, walking away with a $27,000 pension for example.

However, current research on employing the disabled suggests that these stereotypes are unfounded. In a paper discussing the myths and realities of hiring people with disabilities, the U.S. Army said,

“It has been conclusively shown that, on average, people with a disability are more loyal, dependable and productive than their non-disabled colleagues, and that they work more safely. Ninety percent of people with disabilities rated average or better on job performance.”

Accommodations are not that big of an issue either according to the Army. Most of what is typically asked costs nothing to the employer. Any costs are usually minor, and they’re often outweighed by the benefits.

Take Walgreens for instance. The pharmaceutical chain opened a distribution center in South Carolina in 2007 and committed to hiring a large number of people with disabilities. Able-bodied and disabled individuals worked side by side. What Walgreens found amazed the corporate world. The facility, staffed in large part by people who have been written off as inefficient insurance risks by many businesses, ran 20 percent more efficiently.
Hiring people with disabilities is also good for customer relations.

A 2006 study from the University of Massachusetts Boston Center for Social Development and Education reports “overwhelmingly positive attitudes among consumers toward socially responsible companies, and in particular toward those that hire individuals with disabilities.” Specifically, 92 percent of consumers surveyed felt more favorable toward companies that hire individuals with disabilities.

In spite of this and other such success stories, low employment among the disabled persists. The question is, why?

Ironically, one of the reasons for the reluctance among employers to hire people with disabilities might be the biggest accomplishment in the history of disability rights, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, after the passage of the act many big corporations argued that the requirements were too burdensome.

Fearing backlash from government agencies for unintentionally breaking ADA rules as well as a belief that the disabled would file lawsuits at the drop of a hat, employers decided to just pass over people with disabilities rather than risk dealing with the ADA.

According to Cato, many businesses pass over the disabled for fear that if they fire them, even for a legitimate reason, they will lose thousands of dollars to expensive litigation. For small and mid-sized businesses, such lawsuits can ruin them even in good economic times.

Linda Casalina, Assistant Director of Disability Services, thinks that another part of it is based on fear and a general lack of knowledge.

“They have this idea that accommodations cost a lot of money,” Casalina said. “In reality they don’t. They aren’t that hard to make, and in fact most of them don’t cost any money at all.”
She also noted that there is another part of the equation.

“With so many people looking for jobs, employers typically look for the able-bodied.”
Cleveland State student Ryan Masick is visually impaired and has often dealt with the trials that come with looking for work.

“You have employers who are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and getting sued,” Masick said. “Plus many employers want people who are able to drive, and if you’re blind, paralyzed or have epilepsy, it’s going to be a problem.”
Then there are simply some jobs that people with disabilities cannot do.

“It’s a decent paying job, but the fact is I’m not going to be driving for UPS, and this is true for many other people as well,” said Jeffery Dell, who is visually impaired and a manager in the Adaptive Technology Lab at Cleveland State. “There are just certain jobs people with disabilities are not able to do, including many menial jobs.”

However, it is not impossible for a person with a disability to get a job. It takes extra work, though. Dell said that people with disabilities have to work harder to stand out in the workplace. If they work harder, human resources people focus more on them than their condition.

They must also know how to carry themselves in a job interview.

“When you go in there, you can’t go in acting entitled saying ‘I’m disabled and I need you to do a bunch of stuff,’” he said. “Rather you should say, ‘I want to work with you. Let’s find a way we can help each other.’”
He cautions that these tips won’t always work, but it will definitely help improve a person’s chances.