Employees with disabilities, just as any other employee, are able to more fully contribute when their workplaces are characterized by innovative practices and flexible work processes. When employees are treated as individuals with unique needs and challenges, they are more likely to be provided with strong foundations to apply their talents, skills and capabilities (Collela, 2001).
In what follows, consider eight innovative strategies implemented by businesses and organizations throughout our country to ensure that the talents, skills and capabilities of everyone, including people with disabilities, are fully engaged to meet business goals and further organizational missions. Some of these have been briefly described in other parts of this program, but are given more detailed attention here.
Disability inclusiveness is not about charity or something “nice to do.” It is about more than just legal compliance. It is about building a high performing workforce. When disability inclusiveness is not integrated with real-live goals for the organization, there is a risk that it becomes a meaningless “add-on.” A first step in creating a disability inclusive workplace is to consider your business or organizational goals. How does disability inclusiveness align with these goals? How can disability inclusive workplace strategies help your organization reach these goals? We’ve considered several different alignments here: Access to a broader range of talent, becoming an employer of choice, building employee trust, enhancing engagement, improving performance, reducing turnover, saving on workers compensation costs, reducing absence, providing an alternative to work leave, connecting with customers, building community citizenship, and several others. Integrating disability inclusiveness with business goals is the key step in making these strategies an integral part of life in your organization.
Several major companies, such as Nike, Medtronics, Microsoft, Merck, IBM and JP Morgan Chase and many others, have established resource or affinity groups to better engage their employees with disabilities. Unlike “support groups” (whose very name implies that members cannot function independently), resource groups are voluntary communities of employees with disabilities that provide members with information, networking, and the opportunity to discuss issues in a safe environment. Also, these groups have served as a conduit to identify disability-related needs and problems within organizations before they spin-off to become larger problems.
Think back to a time when you had a rich learning experience at work—a time when you gained knowledge or skills that really jump-started your effectiveness in your job. Chances are this learning did not occur in the classroom or from a manual. In all likelihood, another person—a skilled leader, a trusted co-worker or a knowledgeable friend—gave you real-time feedback that you could apply immediately to improving your performance at work. Chances are, that is, that you had a coach or mentor. According to the Center for Workforce Development, 70% of what we need to learn on the job we get through informal learning—through being coached and mentored (Center for Workforce Development, 1998). This is no less the case for employees with disabilities. Research evidence suggests that people with disabilities may not be as likely as other employees to be coached and mentored (Schur, et.al, 2006). A key part of fully engaging the talents of your workforce is to ensure that everyone, including employees with disabilities, can access this rich source of learning that can powerfully improve their work performance. Finally, consider the role technology can play in offering real-time coaching and communication for people with disabilities. A recent report by the National Council on Disability offers an in-depth view of the use of digital technology for workplace communications for people with disabilities (NCD, 2011).
Veterans with disabilities bring a great deal to the workplace: Discipline, skills, education, resilience, and teamwork. There are a proliferation of resources and websites related to employing veterans with disabilities. Many of these are given in the resources section of this tutorial. Also, there are financial incentives for hiring and accommodating veterans with disabilities.
Though many organizations have a commitment in principle to hiring and retaining people with disabilities, this commitment may become diluted during the topsy-turvy reality of everyday life in the organization. Managers/supervisors play a key role in any workplace practice related to disability: hiring, accommodation, promotion, coaching and performance management. Yet, they are often overlooked as diversity and disability efforts are rolled out in organizations. To be successful, disability initiatives must place managers/supervisors front and center. The Northeast ADA Center at Cornell University has designed a disability inclusiveness program aimed specifically at managers and supervisors. This online program uses a “just-in-time” approach that is adapted and relevant to the busy schedules of managers and supervisors. For more information, call 800-949-4232.
Project Search was developed to hire people with developmental and cognitive disabilities into routine hospital jobs that were difficult to fill. At first, the project appeared to falter as the new employees seemingly could not master the routine work processes. But one day an employee left on his own created new task processes that actually enabled him to do the job more effectively than the old process. In fact, this new task process was so effective that it was adopted as standard practice. Many times, tasks and work processes that are adopted initially as an accessibility feature or an accommodation turn out to be more effective for everyone. Having flexibility in work processes is often the first step in finding new and better ways of doing things. It is also the first step in ensuring that people with disabilities can fully apply their abilities to their jobs. As is the case with many employees, those with disabilities can get the job done and done on time; they just may need to do it a little differently.
One of the nation’s largest drugstore retailers has instituted an initiative to hire and promote people with disabilities. Beginning with the distribution centers, Walgreens has as a goal to create a workforce that consists of at least one-third of people with disabilities. This goal was not adopted as charity. It simply was good business. The first distribution center opened under this initiative is in Anderson, SC and currently has a workforce that consists of 40% of employees with disabilities. The Anderson center has experienced a 20% increase in its efficiency by examining work processes in order to provide accessibility and accommodations. Further, employees with disabilities, being held to the same standards as any other employee, receive the same pay, benefits and chance for promotion as anyone else in the organization.
Many companies have discovered the wealth of resources and services available to them to hire and retain people with disabilities (Wehman, et. al., 2008). These companies have realized the business advantage of public/private partnerships to promote disability inclusiveness. The number of successful public/private partnerships is continuously growing. Here are some highlights:
A key to creating successful, sustained partnerships is to select a partner as you would any other contractor or supplier. Begin by interviewing “candidates” for their competence and compatibility with your organizational goals. Then, make sure that your partner offers a single “point of contact” so you can easily interface in your communications. Finally, clearly establish goals and expectations at the outset in order to gauge progress.
These eight strategies and many others show how companies that have been creative, flexible and collaborative have found ways to meet their business goals by recruiting, hiring and retaining talented people with disabilities. Many employers are now discovering the short and long term benefits of these new practices and partnerships in helping them prepare for the workforce of tomorrow.
Center for Workforce Development (1998). The teaching firm: where productive work and learning converge: Report on research findings and implications. Newton, Mass.: Education Development Center. Retrieved June 13, 2008 at http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/custom/portlets/recordDetails/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED461754&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED461754
Collela, A. (2001). Coworker distributive fairness judgments of the workplace accommodation of employees with disabilities. Academy of Management Review 26: 100 – 116.
Lengnick-Hall, M. (2007). Hidden talent: How leading companies hire, retain, and benefit from people with disabilities. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
National Council on Disability. (2011). The Power of Digital Inclusion: Technology’s Impact on Employment and Opportunities for People with Disabilities. Accessed at http://www.ncd.gov/publications/2011/Oct042011.
Schur, L., Druse, D., Blasi,J., & Blanck, P. (2006). Corporate culture and the experiences of employees with disabilities. Working paper: School of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers University.
Wehman, P., Brooke, V., Green, H., Hewett, M. & Tipton, M. (2008). Public/private partnerships and employment of people with disabilities: Preliminary evidence from a pilot project. Jourrnal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 28, 53-66.