Workplace Culture

Ad Campaign Educates C-Suite About Disability Diversity

By Staff Report

Jan. 27, 2010

With the unemployment rate hovering in double-digit territory, it’s difficult for many people to find a job. It’s an even bigger challenge for Mark Karner, a polio survivor who uses a wheelchair and ventilator.

His disability limits the kinds of jobs he can perform. Wheelchair access is often the first stumbling block when he inquires about an opening.

“Half of them don’t even know what that means,” said Karner, who has been job hunting since September. “That’s really held me back. There’s still a lot of discrimination out there.”

Karner knows the situation better than most people because he previously was disability advocacy director at the Progress Center for Independent Living in Forest Park, Illinois.

Health & Disability Advocates, a Chicago-based group, is trying to change the perception of hiring people with disabilities through an advertising campaign that launched February 1. 

The national effort will total $4 million initially for television, radio, print and Internet ads.

It is designed to change the perception of hiring disabled employees. Print ads poke fun at the foibles of typical employees. For instance, “Tina” is portrayed as being “pattern deficient” because her clothes don’t match.

“Just because someone looks a little different doesn’t mean they can’t make your organization look great,” the ad says. “The same goes for people with disabilities.”

Barbara Otto, executive director of Health & Disability Advocates in Chicago, said the campaign, a collaborative effort between states and human services agencies, strives to be edgy and creative rather than staid government public service announcements.

“What we’re trying to do is turn the notion of labels on its ear and get decision-makers to go beyond their own bias and look at what a person can contribute to their business instead of looking at their disability,” Otto said.

The target audience, Otto said, is executives at small and medium-size companies that may not have an HR department. The ads will direct them to a Web site that outlines state-level resources to help them identify disabled job candidates and modify their workplaces for them.

Small and large employers alike will have to pay closer attention to the needs of disabled employees in the wake of legislation approved by Congress in 2008 that expands the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Regulations are being drafted that would implement the law, which went into effect in January 2009. It broadens the definition of disability in response to Supreme Court rulings that limited the ADA’s scope.

Instead of looking at case history to determine whether an employee qualifies as disabled, companies must now be more inclined to accommodate him or her.

“Dealing with sick, injured, disabled employees is much more of a high-stakes process,” said Gerald Maatman Jr., a partner at Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago. “The law puts a much higher premium on decision-making. It’s a very employee-friendly set of amendments.”

Despite the ADA, hiring obstacles remain—even in a good economy.

“It’s the last frontier for employers looking to build a diverse workplace,” Otto said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr. 

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