1. FEATURE STORY: GIVE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES A FAIR CHANCE
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, as designated by Congress. It is the perfect time to recognize that individuals with disabilities face greater unemployment and underemployed than individuals without disabilities — and to do something about it. According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for the month of August, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities was 15.6%, compared with 9.3% for individuals no disabilities. Also in August, the BLS released 2009 employment-population ratios, i.e., the proportion of the population employed. The ratio for persons with a disability was 19.2%, compared with 64.5% for those without a disability.
Even the federal government — the nation's largest employer — is working to improve its employment of disabled individuals. Individuals with disabilities currently represent just over 5% of the nearly two million people in the federal workforce. In July, President Obama signed an Executive Order, titled Increasing Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities, which calls for:
the design of model recruitment and hiring strategies for agencies seeking to increase their employment of people with disabilities,
the development of mandatory training programs for HR and hiring managers on the employment of individuals with disabilities,
the development of specific plans for promoting employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities,
the implementation of strategies for retaining workers with disabilities, and
improving, expanding, and increasing successful return-to-work outcomes for those injured on the job.
In the 2010 Kessler/National Organization on Disability Survey of Americans with Disabilities, 43% of individuals with disabilities reported encountering employment discrimination, including being paid less than similarly situated workers (18%), being refused a job (17%), being given less responsibility than co-workers (12%), being denied a hiring interview (11%), and being denied a promotion (10%).
Start Reaching Out
Tap into the underutilized skills of individuals with disabilities by posting job openings at local vocational rehabilitation offices and disability advocacy organizations. Make them feel welcome during the hiring process by:
Taking a disclosed disability into consideration when providing directions to the workplace for the interview. For example, if the individual uses a wheelchair, consider distance, weather conditions, and physical obstacles, such as curbs, stairs, and steep hills.
Ensuring that the interview location, whether it's your office or another office space, is easily accessible for all. In other words, make sure that your office isn't so cluttered that it's hard for you to maneuver, let alone an individual who uses a cane, has a visual impairment, etc.
When considering an individual with a disability for a particular position, focus on their knowledge, abilities, credentials, and experience, and not on their disability. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the courts don't look kindly on employers that assume that an individual with a disability is incapable of doing a job, especially when there is evidence to the contrary.
Example: An applicant's online application qualified her for an interview. Upon meeting the applicant, a hiring manager learned that she was blind and immediately stated: "This isn't going to work out." Despite the applicant's attempts to explain that she had successfully performed similar work for over eight years with the aid of assistive technology, the manager repeated the sentiment and turned away the applicant without interviewing her. The manager's actions resulted in a $55,000 settlement with the EEOC. (EEOC v. Sentry Credit, Inc., D.C. WA, No. CV-09-0147 MJP, 2010)
It's imperative that employers give individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to prove themselves. All employees should be given the chance to do a job to the best of their abilities and to be assessed on their own terms. Adverse employment decisions should be based on observed performance problems, not on potential or unknown future issues.
Example: An employee was hired for a payroll position. Before her first day on the job was over, she had been fired. The EEOC alleged that she was let go after her supervisor discovered that her left arm was paralyzed. The company paid the employee, who "was not even given a full day to prove herself," $30,000 to settle the EEOC's lawsuit. (EEOC v. Akeena Solar, Inc., N.D.CA, No. C08-4527 PVT, 2010)
If you're going to use an employee's disability as a justification for their termination, you must be able to show that the disability prevented the employee from performing the job or created a safety risk. If you believe an employee is unable to perform the job or poses a safety risk, you must engage in the interactive process and explore whether a reasonable accommodation exists that can help the employee perform essential job functions or eliminate the safety risk.
Example: An employee who was an amputee successfully worked as a secretary in a funeral home for almost two years. Once she required the use of a wheelchair, she was fired. The company claimed that, if the employee could not walk, she would not be able to carry out her secretarial duties. EEOC: The company should have given the employee the chance to "demonstrate her abilities to carry out her work functions using a chair," rather than firing her based on "its own stereotypes of what a person who uses a wheelchair can and cannot do." Payout to employee: $62,500. (EEOC v. S.C.C., Inc., d/b/a Attrell's Newberg Funeral Chapel, D.C. OR, No. cv-09-1009-HU, 2010)