As many employers struggle to find workers, one group often gets overlooked: the disability community. Why does this group get overlooked, and how does it benefit employers who hire disabled workers?
The Midway Chamber of Commerce recently held a panel discussion about this topic, featuring Mike Wall, Optum Health; Brittanie Wilson, The Arc Minnesota; and Andrea Zuber, The Arc Minnesota. Here are some of the key takeaways, as well as additional analysis.
What terms do I use? As we strive to be kind, respectful, and accurate in describing different groups, what are the appropriate terms to use when describing people who identify as disabled? As with many questions, the answer can be complicated and depend on the case. While some people prefer to be called by their specific disability (ex: Rene, who is on the autism spectrum), other times it may be most appropriate to say the more encompassing term of “disability community.” For the sake of this article, I will mainly use this term as I am describing a large sect of people. One term not to use: “special needs.” As Brittanie pointed out at our event, she doesn’t have “special needs”– she has “human needs” like everyone else.
Is there a certain industry that is specifically a good fit for people with disabilities? No, but for many years people thought so as they were put into one of the eight F’s: food, filth, fetching, folding, filing, flower, festive, and friendly. While these jobs can be good fits for many, they are also typically lower paid and don’t begin to focus on the skills of so many. The reality is we should see all workers the same: find jobs which match the worker’s skill set and interests. As Brittanie pointed out, she sought a job doing customer service where she answered phone calls. She has the skill of being a good communicator and nobody can tell she uses a wheelchair (or discriminate against her) while talking on the phone.
Back to the original question: how can job seekers with a disability help an employer? For one, the obvious answer is that with the lowest unemployment rate in the U.S., Minnesota employers should be looking at every option for hiring new employees. Yet often, throughout the United States there are reports of job seekers discriminated against because they have a disability. This discrimination can also be seen in the actual job descriptions themselves, as they often include requirements such as “must be able to lift 50 pounds” even though the job may not ever call for lifting heavy objects or could be done by someone else.
Another reason to hire those with a disability: news travels, and when others realize your acceptance and welcoming environment they are more likely to give you business. Brittanie worked for many years at a bank which had a good reputation toward the disability community. Mike’s daughter is also a member of the disability community, and works for a company which shows respect for all employees.
Some employers discriminate against job seekers with a disability because they are hesitant to accommodate them. But this is another goodwill gesture companies show by making changes to help all employees. Brittanie gave two examples of when her employer showed their support when they added automatic doors on all levels of their parking ramp and when they created a curb cut near an emergency exit. These are examples of ensuring more people can access your building, be they employees, clients, customers, or anyone else (and note, many people enjoy using amenities like these examples). As Brittanie pointed out, access is love.
What does the future hold for employees and job seekers with disabilities? Based on trends, here are some thoughts.
• There will be more workers who identify with a disability. The increase in remote work jobs has meant more opportunities. The call for remote jobs has been in the disability community for years, but many employers wouldn’t listen until COVID-19 forced more workplaces into remote work. Another reason we will see more disabled people working in the future – as Brittanie said, when thinking about who is disabled remember if you aren’t disabled it means “you are not disabled yet.” As people age, they are more likely to develop a disability.
• Another reason more disabled people should join the workforce: for their skills. As Brittanie pointed out, her communication skills helped her on the phone. But some disabilities, including learning disabilities, can also mean certain skills are more common. For example, if someone’s disability means they would prefer a job with a defined goal as opposed to one where every scenario is different (and perhaps based on social cues) they may avoid a job in sales and seek out computer programming.
• More employers will understand the impact on their bottom line if they are creating a welcoming environment for all. This also carries into their definition of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Many organizations have worked on their DEI plan, but still too many are not factoring in the disability community.
Another hope is more doctors will tell parents of disabled newborns and children to be optimistic. Far too often, doctors will tell parents to not expect disabled children to become independent. But studies show pushing kids with disabilities to be independent, plan to go to college and find a career make it much more likely they will achieve these goals. Again, human needs not special needs.
One more hope for the future: the disability community, as well as more offices and industries, will be led by people with disabilities. Who better to tell the stories of what people with disabilities can do than someone who identifies that way? As we have seen with gender and race, differences get embraced best when people who identify a certain way have a seat at the leadership table. And while some people with disabilities may not have the traditional management experience, they may have hired, fired, managed, and trained several personal care attendants.
The panel gave me hope for the workforce, and that more companies would look at new ways to find workers. With the lowest unemployment rate in the country, employers need to try something different. The places open to all will find the most success.
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