The Surprising Thing About Accommodation

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In the United States, for all age groups, the employment-population ratio for persons with a disability is less than half that of those with no disability.[1]

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Flickr

Employers often hesitate to hire disabled individuals and can be challenged by the need to accommodate employees who develop a disability while employed. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires any employer with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment that enables a person with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.[2]

Research reveals the following principal barriers to employing workers with disabilities:

  • lack of awareness of disability and accommodation issues,
  • concern over costs, and
  • fear of legal liability.[3]

Until employers have some experience in hiring and retaining employees with disabilities, chances are these barriers will remain. Surprisingly, those who have ventured into the unknown and stepped up to this challenge have encountered some unexpected results.

Unexpected “Return on Disability”

Fifteen years ago, Craig Gray wrote this in an article in the September 2000 issue of Executive Online:  

"Many businesses are learning that workers with disabilities are not only meeting expectations in the workforce, but also exceeding them. Employees with disabilities are helping companies learn how to most effectively relate to customers with disabilities and their families and friends. As an added bonus, hiring employees with disabilities has provided many employers with the knowledge and experience to help lower their overall cost of time lost to temporary disabilities experienced by the rest of their staffs."

In the intervening years, while progress has been made in accommodating employees who develop a disability while employed, there has been little change in the overall employment numbers for people with disabilities. Until now. In the past year or so, a number of interesting developments have emerged that suggest some employers are beginning to recognize the value of this previously untapped labor pool.

Take, for example, this CBC video, showcasing a selection of Canadian and American companies experiencing substantial business benefits (including increased profitability) from employing a variety of disabled workers.

Disabled an Asset Not a Liability

Although evidence is growing that people with disabilities can make great employees, most organizations have not yet overcome the fear and lack of understanding that prevents them from accessing this underrepresented segment of the workforce.

Not so for tech giant SAP. They’ve put an unusual spin on the debate by actively seeking out candidates with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome for their specific talents. The company has embarked on “a global program to hire people with autism as software testers, programmers and data quality assurance specialists.” SAP is more than willing to accommodate social and communications challenges many of these individuals experience in order to tap into their often exceptional intelligence, concentration and observational skills.[4]

Once employers overcome their initial reluctance to hire (or accommodate) the differently-abled, they often become advocates, hiring an ever increasing proportion of disabled workers as the benefits become apparent. Among these employers, some of the most commonly cited “unexpected advantages” include:

  1. The additional of highly committed workers who are very loyal to the organization and have an exceptional work ethic.
  2. Increased productivity.
  3. Reduced absenteeism.
  4. Reduced turnover.
  5. Increased profit.
  6. Enhanced ability of other employees to interact with diverse co-workers and customers.
  7. Better customer approval ratings and improved public perception. (87% of those surveyed prefer to give their business to companies that hire individuals with disabilities.[5])
  8. Improved employee engagement and more supportive work environment.

Every employer wants employees with great attitudes, who work hard and love their jobs. Most employers are struggling to find these employees. The time required to fill vacancies is reaching record highs and the job market continues to tighten. Perhaps it’s time for more employers to expand their comfort zones and explore the possibilities of a largely overlooked labor pool (7 million in the U.S), who are very eager to work. When they do, according to Peter Berns, CEO of The ARC[6], employers “will get individuals who are extraordinarily committed to being good employees. They will have better attendance than your average employee, and they’ll work from the minute they arrive to the minute they leave.”[7] What's more, they'll do it with a smile.


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[1] Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary
[3] Why Don’t Employers Hire and Retain Workers with Disabilities?

[5] National survey (2006) conducted by Gary Siperstein, Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts.

[6] An advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities

[7] The Unexpected Benefits of Hiring a Developmentally Disabled Employee.

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