Getting People with Disabilities Back to Work

AT&T (T), Cisco Systems (CSCO), Microsoft (MSFT), and a host of other big U.S. companies will meet in November with 60 prospective employees at an event in Morristown, N.J.

This is no ordinary networking schmoozefest. These would-be staffers are capable of handling a broad range of information technology jobs—from software programming to hardware engineering. Something else these people have in common: They all have disabilities.

Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities, affiliated with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, convened the summit to reverse what it considers a disturbing increase in the rate of unemployment for people who are battling autism, visual impairments, or other physical or psychological disabilities. "The point of these summits is to encourage students to see that there are employers out there seeking them, and for employers out there to know there are qualified job-seekers," says Alan Muir, executive director of the group.

Even as the disabled workforce shrank by 423,000 to about 4.9 million in the two years through May, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities increased to 15.6 percent from 13.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which began tracking the data in June 2008. The unemployment rate for people with no disabilities dropped to 8.5 percent from 8.9 percent in that same period.

Employment Struggle

The divergence shows that more than 20 years after the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was designed to foster equal opportunities in employment, people with disabilities continue to struggle to find jobs. "The ADA and the special education laws have combined to produce the best-educated population of people with disabilities in U.S. history," Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Corporate Disability Employment Summit in April. "Now that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is reporting regularly on the employment situation for people with disabilities, we have strong evidence that it has gotten disproportionately worse for workers with disabilities in the last two years," he said.

Some companies including Walgreens (WAG), IBM (IBM), and Lockheed Martin (LMT) are taking steps to improve hiring of people with disabilities. Walgreens, for example, opened a new distribution center in Anderson, S.C., in 2007. The center features simplified touchscreen computers and automated guided vehicles that could be operated by people with disabilities. The company began hiring people with physical and cognitive disabilities. Today, 40 percent of the workers in that center have a disability.

By the end of 2010, the company had hired about 850 such workers in all of its distribution centers. The aim is to increase hiring of people with disabilities to about 20 percent of its distribution center workers, from slightly less than 10 percent at the end of last year.

Creating accommodations for most of those workers cost less than $25 apiece, and they hold the same jobs, receive the same pay, and are held to the same productivity standards as other employees, J. Randolph Lewis, senior vice-president of supply chain and logistics at Walgreens, said in Mar. 2 Senate testimony.

Tech Challenge

When it comes to taking on people with issues such as vision or hearing loss, one challenge is that hiring managers may not understand what tools they’ll need to work productively. IBM has created a Web portal to help suggest specific technologies such as screen readers that blind employees may need or the type of telephone relay service that a deaf person might use. "It makes it really easy for employees to get help," says Frances W. West, director of the IBM Human Ability & Accessibility Center.

IBM hired its first blind person in 1914 and went on to develop technology for those employees, such as talking typewriters and Braille printers. The commitment to assistive technology has long come from upper management. Thomas J. Watson Jr., who became chief executive officer of IBM in 1956, suffered from depression and learning disabilities as a young man.

Lockheed Martin recruits injured veterans for jobs in information technology and supply chain management. The company operates a program called the Seamless Transition Apprenticeship Program in partnership with the U.S. Veterans Affairs Dept. and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. During the two-year program, apprentices work with an employee. They receive training and mentoring and are strongly encouraged to pursue a college degree if they don’t already have one.

While companies like IBM, Walgreens, and Lockheed Martin serve as examples of progressive hiring practices, many companies still have misconceptions about hiring people with disabilities, says Debra Ruh, CEO of (TecAccess), a risk management and accessibility consultancy in Rockville, Va.

Dispelling Misconceptions

"People are afraid of what they don’t understand," Ruh says. "People worry that if you hire a person with a disability that there’s going to be more absenteeism and the biggest misnomer is that you can’t fire them because there will be a lawsuit." She says she has fired employees who have disabilities, and that she hasn’t been sued.

When Ruh started TecAccess in 2001, she decided to hire mostly employees with disabilities. Over the years, she’s hired workers with mobility and physical impairments, including muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, quadriplegia, paraplegia, traumatic brain injuries, vision loss, and mental health issues. Ruh was inspired by the creativity and capabilities of her eldest daughter, Sara, who has Down syndrome. Sara Ruh now speaks globally about accessibility on behalf of TecAccess.

What potential employees with disabilities often do need is training and, in some cases, technology to help them do their jobs. Walgreens, for example, has worked with outside agencies to provide training and support to help employees make the transition into the workplace. "About 40 percent of people with disabilities say they’d need assistive technology to enter the workforce," says Janet Fiore, CEO of The Sierra Group, a rehabilitation engineering consulting group in King of Prussia, Pa. Those accommodations can range in cost from a few hundred dollars to $2,000, she says, adding that often companies qualify for tax breaks on those expenses.

In the past, educators often steered people with disabilities away from science and technology, fearing it would be too complicated, says Muir. Yet, about half of the students at his organization’s last two networking events in Boston and San Jose were knowledgeable about science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. "I was very surprised and pleased," he says, "and the employers were thrilled."

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