It has often been said that a company is only as good as its workforce. Most hiring managers will speak to the necessity — and often the difficulty — of finding employees with competitive skills, superior productivity and low absenteeism rates. Once these workers are located and hired, the problem becomes retaining them. The ultimate challenge is getting everyone in the workplace to operate as a team.
In many cases, workers with disabilities may be the solution to hiring problems, but employers are not often aware of it. Lack of familiarity with individuals with disabilities can create negative attitudes concerning their employment. However, the facts show that these workers can often be a company’s best asset.
Competitive skills are of course the basic requirement for job competence. Employers should not focus on an applicant’s disability but, rather, on his or her abilities. The use of a wheelchair or a braille reader, for example, does not mean the person does not have education, training or experience. In fact, many individuals with disabilities have had more training than their counterparts without disabilities.
Every state has a public vocational rehabilitation program that is jointly funded by federal and state governments. In Massachusetts, for example, it’s the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. Non-profit organizations such as Goodwill Industries also feature programs for training individuals with disabilities to succeed in the workplace.
Catherine Capek is vice president of industrial services for Goodwill Industries of the Springfield/Hartford Area, Inc., in Connecticut. One of her responsibilities is finding contract jobs for her teams of workers with disabilities. She recalls trying to get a contract with Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., one of the top 100 integrated health care networks in the country. Capek was turned down and told that the hospital had very rigorous standards and its own certification program.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers many resources for individuals with disabilities here.eSight Careers Network, a service of The Associated Blind, Inc., is a nonprofit agency that provides online information and guidance for job seekers, career counselors, job developers and prospective employers about a range of disability employment issues.
Goodwill Industries is one of the world’s largest nonprofit providers of education, training and career services for people with disadvantages such as welfare dependency, homelessness and lack of education or work experience and individuals with physical, mental and emotional disabilities.
The Job Accomodation Network, a service of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, is a free information and referral service for people with disabilities. It provides information about the employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and about resources for technical assistance, funding, education and services related to the employment of people with disabilities.
“Come and teach us to clean according to your standards,” Capek challenged them. A member of the hospital staff accepted the challenge. Soon Capek’s team will be able to tell potential employers that they have been trained to Baystate Medical Center’s exacting standards.
Along with competitive skills goes the need for productivity. Here again, workers with disabilities excel. Research has found that people who face and overcome challenges on a daily basis are great problem solvers. According to a DuPont Corporation study dating back to the 1950s, “Employees with disabilities equal or exceed coworkers without disabilities in job performance, attendance and attention to safety.”
“Individuals with disabilities are among the most valued employees because they put their skills to good use,” says Brenda L. Moore, director of Connecticut’s Bureau of Rehabilitation Services. “They have more barriers to contend with, i.e., prejudices. We try to break down barriers so [individuals with disabilities] are seen as equal. If given that chance they probably are a very valued commodity to the employer.”
Many managers will state that keeping good employees is more difficult than finding them in the first place. The cost to search for and train workers is high, so retention is important. Perhaps the greatest positive attribute that workers with disabilities bring to the workplace is loyalty. If they’ve arrived at a job through a vocational counseling service, they have the added benefit of follow-up and mentoring by the agency to troubleshoot any problems that may arise.
“I can tell you that the people you hire with disabilities you keep for life,” Capek says. “Sometimes you just can’t train work ethic. When you provide a supportive work environment and an adaptive environment, you get loyalty and retention. They’ve been through something, and it brings out the best in them.”