The Untapped Talent Pool of People With Disabilities

By Sarah Fister Gale

Aug. 7, 2014

Recently, Dana Marlowe’s technology consultancy was managing a software project at a Fortune 500 company, when the client told her he was so impressed with her project manager that he wanted to hire him on the spot. That’s not surprising in a world where great tech talent is hard to come by, but it may be surprising to hear that this particular project manager is both deaf and legally blind.

“He’s a brilliant guy, and why wouldn’t they want to hire someone who is brilliant?” said Marlowe, who is principal partner of Accessibility Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that helps organizations ensure their information technology products and services are accessible for people with disabilities. She prioritizes hiring workers with disabilities with the goal that at least 75 percent of the workforce has a disability.

Having workers with disabilities on her team is about more than doing the right thing, she said. “Employing people with disabilities just makes good business sense.”

The unemployment rate among disabled workers is double the average population, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, or ODEP. Yet many of these workers are highly educated, deeply talented, and very loyal, Marlowe said. “People who overcome challenges on a daily basis can handle whatever workplace issues you throw at them.”

In an economy where companies are facing serious talent shortages, workers with disabilities offer a great value proposition. They not only bring expertise and experience to the table, they help organizations create a more inclusive workplace culture, said Kathy Martinez, head of the ODEP. “Diversification breeds innovation,” she added.

That’s important today as older workers are opting to stay in the workforce longer and could develop a disability while employed. “If you train a person for 30 years and they lose their vision due to diabetes, you would make accommodations so they can keep working,” she said.

Yet a lot of companies shy away from hiring candidates with disabilities in part because they aren’t sure what “accommodations” those employees will need to do the job. Employers imagine they will have to buy expensive equipment or adapt their office space, but the reality is quite different, Martinez said. According to an ongoing study by the Job Accommodation Network, 58 percent of accommodations don’t cost the company any money, while the rest typically cost about $500.

“Accommodations are really just productivity tools,” she said. Many solutions are as simple as lowering a desk or buying an extra piece of software like a screen reader for the blind, or an amplified phone receiver for someone hard of hearing. “It’s not going to be as expensive as you think.”

The other obstacle that hiring managers face is the discomfort that comes with not knowing how to discuss the disability, or what questions they are allowed to ask. But most of the concerns are answered in the Americans with Disabilities Act. For example, according to the ADA, an employer cannot make any pre-employment inquiry about a disability or the nature or severity of a disability. An employer may, however, ask questions about a candidate’s ability to perform specific job functions and may, with certain limitations, ask an individual with a disability to describe or demonstrate how that person would perform these functions.

“People with disabilities usually know what they need to do the job, so just ask them,” Martinez said.

Even if hiring someone with a disability requires a little discomfort or a small investment in new technology, it’s worth it for the value they bring to the organization, Marlowe said. “This is a huge, untapped talent pool, and companies would be foolish to ignore them.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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