Advocates Seek Greater Voice for Disabled

By Staff Report

Nov. 1, 2006

As hundreds of companies move ahead of the political debate regarding gay marriage by offering benefits that cover their employees’ same-sex partners, it is apparent that diversity continues to make strides in American offices.

But momentum for an inclusive work­place screeches to a halt in many organizations when it comes to disabled workers, according to advocates.

“It’s absolutely not part of the conversation,” says Jeff Klare, CEO of Hire Disability Solutions, a company that consults with major corporations on the recruitment and retention of disabled people.

Klare says he will try to expand the dialogue by highlighting companies that recruit disabled workers and provide an accessible workplace on his firm’s Web site,

Later this fall, featured employers will have their logos posted on the site. When users click on them, they will be shown a list of company job openings. The site also posts job seekers’ résumés.

The employment rate for people with a work-limiting health problem or disability is 20.8 percent, compared with 78 percent for non-disabled workers, according to the 2002 Current Population Survey.

Putting disability on the diversity agenda has to occur “one employer at a time,” says Nancy Starnes, vice president of the National Organization on Disability.

One obstacle is the lack of awareness. “Disability rights is one of the newest of the civil rights efforts and one of the least recognized,” Starnes says.

In making their case, advocates emphasize the positive contributions disabled workers can make that transcend their condition. If someone can type 70 words per minute, Klare says, it should not matter whether that person has only one hand.

“This is not about charity, this is about skills,” says Klare, who has worked in human resources for 20 years and established his firm when his late sister suffered workplace discrimination because she had HIV/AIDS.

One of the biggest obstacles to employment is the proliferation of misperceptions about disabled people. “It’s a lack of knowledge,” Starnes says. “It’s myths that persist.”

One mistaken assumption is that disabled workers are more inclined than others to sue an employer. In fact, the biggest reason for legal action is being denied an interview, Starnes says.

Companies also fail to create an atmosphere that lets disabled people be productive.

“It’s about bringing the environment into balance with the abilities of the person,” says JoAngela Morin, partner service delivery manager at Monster, which partners with Hiring Disability Solutions for job postings and job searching. For example, a company could assign a blind person to a job that revolves around talking on the phone, Morin said.

Overcoming a disability was illustrated earlier this month when Erik Ma­daus, an 8-year-old with spina bifida, cycled from the U.S. Capitol to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in pouring rain with Klare, who was completing a New York-to-Washington, D.C., bike ride to raise awareness about hiring people with disabilities. Madaus’ bicycle was designed so that he can recline and pedal rather than having to sit up.

It may take many more miles—and more education—before Klare gets his message across to most employers. “We fear what we don’t understand,” he says.

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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