Attitude, Not Cost, Barrier to Disabled Workers – Part One

Attitude, Not Cost, Barrier to Disabled Workers – Part One

by Catherine Komp

Editor: Unemployment rates among workers with disabilities are much higher than among the general population. The cost of accommodating people with disabilities is a major reason for that, right? Maybe not!

This article was originally published in the New Standard (http://newstandardnews.net). If you would like to reprint this article, please see the credit at the end of the article.

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From the newsroom of The New Standard

Mar. 9 – Impressing a potential employer during an interview and getting a good job offer is difficult for many. But for those with disabilities – who must prove they are as qualified as non-disabled candidates – finding any job has its own challenges.

When Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) fifteen years ago, supporters hoped the equity legislation would increase disabled peoples’ opportunities for employment. But, according to researchers at Cornell University, the employment rate for people with disabilities peaked around 25 percent in the 1990s before dropping below 20 percent by 2004.

The Department of Labor attributes this low employment rate, in part, to the misconception that accommodating people with disabilities in the workplace is prohibitively costly. In fact, research indicates that the opposite is true. The Labor Department’s Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which helps employers hire, retain, and promote people with disabilities, has found that most workplace accommodations can be implemented at little or no cost.

Since cost is not the main barrier, say disability advocates, more needs to change than simply architecture and ergonomics.

“Most disabled people would tell you that the bigger concerns they have around the workplace are not around physical accessibility,” said Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities. “They’re more around attitudes. I think it’s easier to legislate and see change around bricks and mortar than it is around attitudes.”

Low-cost, High-impact

The JAN survey, which will continue through September 2007, released preliminary findings last month based on feedback from 778 employers that had contacted the agency for information about employing people with disabilities.

The vast majority of the employers surveyed had called because they were interested in learning how to retain their employees, who on average had been employed for seven years and were paid about $13 per hour.

About half reported that implementing workplace adjustments came at no expense, and about 43 percent reported a one-time cost that averaged around $600.
“Many employers tell us it’s as simple as making a flexible schedule [for an employee],” said Anne Hirsch, director of services for JAN and co-author of the study. She told The NewStandard that many accommodations are similar to those commonly purchased to make it easier for non-disabled employees to do their jobs, like telephone headsets or specialized computer software that can aid people with vision or range of motion impairments.

Cassie James, self-services coordinator at Liberty Resources, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group for people with disabilities, said many employers wrongly assume that adaptive improvements will be pricey. James, who uses a wheelchair comfortably at her office, said there are many obstacles that need simple fixes rather than state-of-the art solutions.

She gave the scenario of needing to adjust desk height for someone in a taller wheelchair. “If I went out and thought about how can we make this, I might be able to get one of those long working tables and put it on a couple of bricks and it’s just as good,” James said.

The law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman is one company that found cost-effective ways to create a better work environment for disabled employees. The internationally-based firm, which employs over 1,000 people, discovered that minor adjustments – like using instant messaging for some office communications and moving desks so that employees’ backs were not facing the door – could help accommodate two employees with hearing loss.

“With the deaf employees, that was something new for us, and we actually went to them and asked, ‘What can we do to make life easier and help you communicate with us and help us communicate with you?'” explained Britta Stromeyer, human-resources manager at the firm.

Pillsbury law has joined other large companies, including Cingular, Embassy Suites Hotels and IBM, in working with the Employer Assistance & Recruiting Network (EARN), a federally funded accessible-technology company that helps connect businesses to people with disabilities who are looking for work. Stromeyer said she initially used EARN’s services because of problems finding quality candidates through traditional labor recruiting sources, but discovered added benefits beyond simply attracting qualified employees.

“It makes a difference in teamwork in general when you really have a diverse pool of opinions and ideas,” Stromeyer told TNS.

The JAN report found that of the employers surveyed, nearly 9 in 10 reported retaining a valued employee through better workplace accommodations. In addition, three-quarters cited increased productivity, and over half said they eliminated the costs of hiring and training a new employee.

Employers also reported indirect benefits like improved interactions with co-workers and customers, increased company morale and improved workplace safety. Report co-author Hirsch said that all of these results are nothing more than the product of good management skills. “Employers who are proactive look at [workplace accommodations] as how can we use this to improve work for everyone,” she said.

Part Two