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Despite Talent Shortage, People With Disabilities Are Still Underemployed

As we emerge from Covid-19, we have a chance to rethink outdated hiring processes and reach out to an under-represented population.

This past October marked the 76th observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), which celebrates the contributions of Americans with disabilities in the workplace. NDEAM prompts employers to re-evaluate their personnel policies and make an extra effort to hire and retain people with disabilities across the entire spectrum of jobs.

NDEAM’s 2021 theme was “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion.” As we all know, the Covid crisis hit employers and employees hard, with numerous business shutdowns and ensuing layoffs. But those layoffs affected people with disabilities much more harshly. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 in 5 workers with disabilities had been dismissed from employment as of March 2020, compared with 1 in 7 in the general population.

Even before Covid-19, people with disabilities were more likely to unemployed. The employment gap between people with and without disabilities was a staggering 47% prior to the pandemic—only 19.3% of people with disabilities were in the workforce, compared to 66.3% of people without a disability.

Why are people with disabilities consistently unemployed or under-employed?  There are numerous reasons. One is an outdated perception of their capabilities. Many employers believe people with disabilities can’t do the job without significant assistance.  But this is not the case.  The accommodation most people with disabilities require on the job is modest and low-cost, and there are numerous resources available to help employers, including the federal Job Accommodation Network.

But perhaps an even greater barrier than employer perception is the web of outdated laws and policies that limit the ability of people with disabilities to earn a living wage.  For those who require federal assistance with necessary medical benefits, there is an upper limit on how much they can earn before they lose those benefits—and the limit is well below a livable wage. Extremely capable people with disabilities can find themselves trapped in poverty because they can’t afford to lose medical support.

As we emerge from Covid-19, however, we have a chance to rethink outdated hiring processes and reach out to this under-represented population. We have a chance to widen the talent pool and take advantage of everything people with disabilities have to offer. For the benefit of our employees, communities and even the bottom line, we can make hiring people with disabilities a central goal of every Human Resources department.

IWSI America believes with some planning and consistent follow up, workforce policies can easily be changed to include more people with disabilities. We’ve outlined detailed steps employers can take in recruitment, retention and reward in our recently released report: “Ready, Willing and Able: Why It Pays to Hire People with Disabilities,” but I’ll summarize a few key points below.

Recruitment. Recruitment is the first opportunity to reach out to people with disabilities, and you need to make sure your processes are not unintentionally screening out this population.

• Ensure your websites, digital tools and job postings are accessible and use Universal Design

• Use accessible technology platforms (such as Zoom) when meeting people with disabilities and local support groups to promote job opportunities.

• Consider working with school districts to design an educational pathway compatible with company labor needs.

• Build relationships with Think College organizations (which help students with disabilities get career-ready).

Retention. Most employers can improve retention of people with disabilities by making sure their workplaces are accessible, providing inclusive training for the entire workforce, and assigning a coach or mentor to employees with a disability.

• Develop an organization-wide strategy for disability employment.

• Create customized workplace accommodations for individuals, and also develop a company-wide policy for accommodations.

• Ensure your on-boarding process is inclusive.

• Develop company-wide training on inclusion and disability awareness.

• Deploy flexible work arrangements.

• Make sure employees with disabilities can access leadership and career development opportunities.

• Use a formal mentoring and job coaching system.

Reward. Employers can rethink their rewards systems (pay and promotion) so employees with disabilities can be fairly rewarded for good work without adverse effects on necessary federal and state benefits.

• Help employees with disabilities choose between the company package or public benefits (e.g., Medicaid or Social Security).

• Be flexible with the hours of employees who receive public benefits so they don’t lose necessary federal and state assistance.

• Encourage employees with disabilities to use ABLE accounts to save resources without jeopardizing benefits.

Employers can also look beyond the workplace and support larger initiatives aimed at making it easier for people with disabilities to access engaging, well-paid work. Right now, there’s a bill in Congress to eliminate sub-minimum wages for certain people with disabilities. Reforming this outdated practice is long overdue, and should be supported by anyone interested in a more inclusive workforce.

We’ve all had a tough 18 months, with businesses shut down, employees laid off and now the need to restart and re-staff. But crisis can bring opportunity. Let’s use this opportunity to employ people with disabilities in meaningful, challenging jobs and make sure they thrive in those jobs. Individuals, companies and communities will all reap the benefits.


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