Are you interested in trying to make your business more inclusive by actively hiring employees with disabilities? If hiring someone with a disability is a new experience for you, you may be worried about saying the wrong thing, but afraid of going in the opposite direction and pretending that your employee doesn't have a disability.
Generally, a good strategy is to treat an employee with a disability the way you would want to be treated. Still, there are laws to be aware of and certain norms you may want to follow. Doing so can help make all parties feel comfortable, and let your new hire focus on doing their job. If you're planning on hiring employees with disabilities, keep the following in mind.
Benefits of Hiring Employees With Disabilities
By actively recruiting (e.g. advertising job openings on online disability forms) or at least being open to hiring people with disabilities, you're possibly expanding your talent pool and creating a more welcoming workplace.
Hiring employees with disabilities may also bring your company a true go-getter, says Lisa Barone, chief management officer of Overit, a creative agency located in Albany, New York.
Barone says that she has a severe stutter that prevented her for years from finding employment. When you hire someone with a disability, that often means, "you bring on those proven to work exceptionally hard because they are accustomed to overcoming obstacles," she says.
"Employees with disabilities are not less productive than so-called 'abled-bodied' employees. We can do the same work. All we ask is a chance," says Michael Hingson, a Los Angeles-based motivational speaker who happens to be blind.
Addressing Potential Employer and Employee Bias and Questions
It doesn't make you a bad person if you're having an inner debate about hiring employees with disabilities. If you don't know much about a certain disability, you're naturally going to have questions.
"The biggest issue faced by employers is always stigma about the disability—both internal and external," says Tim Howe, the chief operating officer of Spectrum Designs Foundation, a Port Washington, New York-based nonprofit that sells customized T-shirts and primarily hires employees with autism.
With employees who have autism, Howe says that employers have questions along the lines of, "Will the work be subpar because of who's doing it? Can I trust someone with a disability to do the work correctly? Will there be a compromise on quality?"
—Tim Howe, chief operating officer, Spectrum Designs Foundation
Employers may not be the only ones who are worried, according to Howe.
"Employees who have little or no experience of disabilities always react the same way," he says. "Will this person affect my ability to work? Will I have to spend all my time helping them? Will this person be a distraction to me or the rest of my staff?"
A lot of unfounded fears could be laid to rest by learning about the disability. With some issues, like working with autism, Howe says, "this can be solved by just giving them a head start in training."
There are numerous resources out there to help employers with recruiting and hiring employees with disabilities. Some websites worth checking out include:
- The Small Business Administration
- The United States Department of Labor
- The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN), a nonprofit devoted to helping employers seeking to recruit, hire and retain qualified employees with disabilities.
- The Job Accommodation Network, which offers free, expert and confidential advice about hiring and retaining employees with disabilities.
- In 2015, the White House put out a resource guide for employers who are interested in hiring employees with disabilities.
The Interview Process
Ever since the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 went into effect, businesses with 15 or more employees are held accountable for discriminating against people with disabilities. But if you have fewer than 15 employees, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't still try to adhere to the spirit of what the ADA is asking you to do.
When interviewing a qualified individual with a disability, you may want to make sure you're on the right side of the ADA by familiarizing yourself with its mandates. For instance, "some employers don't realize that the ADA strictly limits asking job applicants to answer medical questions, take a medical exam or identify a disability," says David Miklas, a labor and employment attorney in Fort Pierce, Florida.
Miklas adds that an employer covered by the ADA also shouldn't ask disability related questions during the job interview. That doesn't mean, however, that you can't ask questions that will help you learn whether the applicant is right for the job.
"For example, an employer may state the physical requirements of a job, such as the ability to lift a certain amount of weight, or the ability to climb ladders, and ask if an applicant can satisfy these requirements," Miklas says.
There's a good reason for not asking disability related questions during an interview. You want to focus on your employee's skills and ability to do the job. And if nothing else, the law is protecting you, too. If you ask those disability related questions, you may come off looking a bit ignorant.
"Personally, I have been asked by prospective employers questions like, 'How can you get to work since you are blind?' Never mind the fact that I made it to the interview. Never mind that I have an impeccable resume," Hingson says.
That said, maybe you're interested in hiring someone with a disability, but are worried about the expense if your workplace isn't already equipped with wheelchair ramps and TDD telephone equipment for workers with impaired hearing, for example.
Many employers do worry about that, Hingson says. But he also says that usually the cost to provide "reasonable accommodations" aren't expensive, and often can be funded by state rehabilitation programs.
"Often employees bring the tools necessary for them to do the job," he adds.
Federal tax credits may also offset accommodation costs as well, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
Getting Down to Work
Once you have hired someone, "it's important to provide the right tools for [employees with disabilities] so they can succeed in their job, whether it's a ramp for those in wheelchairs [or] desks designed for those who have a disability or cognitive aids," says Shana Gerson, a senior human resources manager and a career coach at Turning the Corner, a Boulder, Colorado-based company that specializes in recruiting, career counseling, hiring and job searches.
If you have a lot of employees and think some people could use it, Gerson suggests including sensitivity training as one of your corporate training programs.
And just as you would talk to any new employee about how they're doing on that first day or week of the job, most human resource experts advise doing the same with an employee with a disability. Consider asking if there are any tools or resources that they need to make their workspace more efficient and comfortable.
Whether you bring in a sensitivity trainer to talk to you and your staff or not, depending on the disability, there may naturally be a learning curve for you and your employees.
Robert Sollars, a security professional who specializes in workplace violence, is blind and says he has had challenges finding a job in his field. Blind employees don't need extra accommodations other than the necessities, like a braille keyboard—but employers and employees showing “common courtesy" would be appreciated, Sollars says.
“Things such as, filing cabinets being closed above the level of a white cane," Sollars says. “Boxes and papers not being left to be knocked off desks or in aisles for either wheelchairs or blind. And if you take something off of our workstations, tell us and then put it back in the exact same place."
"Label, label, label. Everything in the shop should be labelled for clarity," Howe advises. "This does not discriminate but makes it much easier for those with disabilities affecting sight or comprehension to easily familiarize themselves with their surroundings and tools. Patience and [sensitivity] are a must."
But in your efforts to be sensitive to somebody's disability, Howe also says to be careful about going overboard. There's a balance you can strive for, especially in any workplace that makes a practice of hiring employees with disabilities.
"There needs to be a conscious effort to remove an us/them ethos," Howe says. "It's all one staff—everyone has their own skills, and everyone is on the same team."
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