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Business case for a more diverse workforce

Hiring disabled workers can produce a number of intangible benefits

By Michael J. Moody, MBA, ARM

Over the past 25 years there have been a number of legislative initiatives aimed at leveling the playing field for disabled workers. Of course, one of the most influential has been the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This legislation prohibited private employers, as well as state and local governments from "discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in the job application process." Additionally, it also prohibits discrimination in "hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, job testing and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." The ADA was designed to apply to all employers except the very smallest (i.e., with 15 employees or fewer). Federal sector employers have similar requirements "under section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended, and its implementing rules."

As most HR professionals know, the ADA defines an individual with a disability as "a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." The individual must also have a record of such an impairment. Generally, the implementation of the provisions of the ADA have been challenging for some employers, despite tax credits for those employers who are required to make accommodations for those employees who fall under the provisions of the ADA.

Specific provisions of the ADA are pretty clear regarding the necessary steps to assure a level playing field. One of the initial steps is the determination of which employees or potential employees the Act applies to. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is charged with monitoring compliance, "a qualified employee or applicant is one that can perform the essential functions of the job in question," with or without reasonable accommodation. The EEOC considers reasonable accommodation as:

• Making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities

• Job restricting via modifying work schedules, or reassignment to other positions

• Acquiring or modifying equipment or devices; adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials, or policies; and providing qualified readers or interpreters

Accommodation is expected as long as it does not impose an "undue hardship" on the employer or its operation. By necessity, accommodations will vary depending on the employee or applicant and disability involved.

A large group of potential employees

The "graying" of the American work force is now in full swing as the first of the "baby boomers" begin reaching retirement age. As a result, a situation that has been a long time in developing is beginning to occur—a shortage of workers, especially skilled workers, is starting to be visible in many industry sectors. Moving forward, this problem will only get worse, as there are fewer workers to take the place of retiring employees. However, at this point, disabled employees can provide a vast pool of qualified applicants who can help fill this void.

Certainly, finding and retaining qualified workers will be one of the biggest challenges that will be encountered by HR professionals over the next 15 to 20 years. Disabled individuals can offer a great option for many employers because, in the United States, one of the greatest challenges experienced by individuals with disabilities is finding gainful employment. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about "70% of disabled Americans say they want to work full-time, but currently only about 21% do."

There are many reasons for this lack of employment opportunities, but one of the most often cited by potential employers is a concern about what quality of an employee a disabled person would be and the problems that would be associated with his or her employment. A recent study completed by DePaul University and the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity may provide employers with a better perspective regarding working with disabled employees.

The study, Exploring the Bottom Line: A Study of the Cost and Benefits of Workers with Disabilities, provided a comparison of disabled employees with those who had no disabilities. They analyzed the two groups from a number of work-related variables such as tenure, absenteeism, job performance, supervision, workers compensation claims and accommodations. There were a number of interesting findings, which included:

• Participants with disabilities, across all sectors, had fewer scheduled absences.

• Participants with and without disabilities, across all sectors, had nearly identical job performance ratings.

• The amount of supervision, across all sectors, was similar for both groups.

• Disabled employees in the retail sector had fewer days of unscheduled absences.

• Disabled employees from both the retail and hospitality sectors stayed on the job longer.

• The numbers of workers compensation claims were roughly equivalent for both groups.

Participants with disabilities in the health care industry did not fare as well as the group as a whole. They stayed on the job for shorter lengths of time and had more days of unscheduled absences, as well as having more workers compensation claims than their counterparts.

Across all industry sectors, some of the employees with disabilities did require accommodations to do their jobs. However, the report notes that these accommodations had an average cost of $313. Frequently there are a number of annual tax credits available to offset these costs. Some employers have been able to obtain more than $20,000 in tax credits and savings on training costs and accommodation expenses.

Not all disabilities are created equal

In general, there are many studies that confirm the virtues of hiring disabled persons as a part of a long-term human resource strategy. Many benefits can accrue to an employer that takes advantage of this approach. But some disabilities are more challenging to deal with. One such disability is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While ADHD has come to the forefront over the past few years, many people associate it with a childhood disability. However, today, we know that is not the case.

Today, it is estimated that more than eight million American adults have ADHD and, due in large part to the fact that many people believe that most adults "outgrow" the disability and the fact that, for the most part, there is no outward sign of the disability, it is frequently referred to as the "invisible disability." And, while workers with ADHD can create problems, they can make excellent workers when an employer knows what to expect.

Without question, there are characteristics that are typically associated with ADHD individuals. The degree and intensity of these characteristics vary, but generally will include short attention span, distractibility, hyperactivity, memory problems, time management problems and procrastination. Despite these potential issues, ADHD adults tend to have high IQs and can exhibit great creativity. In general, when approached in the proper way, ADHD employees can make a positive contribution to any organization.


The law of the land is clear—disabled persons should have the same opportunities for employment as those without disabilities. Given the impending shortage of qualified applicants, employers would do well to consider expanding their pool of potential workers to include disabled persons, including those with ADHD.

Nowhere is this shortage of qualified applicants greater than in the insurance industry. For the most part, many insurance jobs are currently being held by employees who are within five to 10 years of retirement. Many of these jobs could be done by disabled individuals, with little or no accommodation. And aside from the tangible benefits that are derived from hiring qualified employees, there are also a number of less tangible benefits as well—such as higher employee retention and productivity, gaining access to new markets, and improved customer loyalty and brand trust. Inclusion strategies that include hiring disabled workers lead to a more dedicated and reliable staff made up of a more diverse workforce.


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