A New Push to Hire the Disabled

Seventy percent of disabled Americans say they want to work full-time, but only about 21 percent do, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Think Beyond the Label, a Chicago public-private partnership that works to increase employment for people with disabilities, hopes to change that.

A typical small business can obtain more than $20,000 in tax credits and savings on training costs if it hires a disabled employee—while also gaining good will, says Barbara A. Otto, chief executive of Health & Disability Advocates, the nonprofit behind Think Beyond the Label. Otto spoke recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein; edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Karen E. Klein: What tax benefits are available for small businesses that hire disabled individuals?

Otto: A small business would qualify for $7,400 in annual tax credits, plus a tax deduction of $15,000 for money spent to improve access to their building. If they hire through an eligible program, they also save on recruitment, training, and accommodation costs. A company that hires a veteran with a disability through a Veterans’ Affairs program qualifies for a $4,800 tax credit, plus reimbursement of up to 50 percent of the new hire’s first six months of wages.

Other benefits include less-tangible but still-important ones such as higher retention and productivity, gaining access to new markets, and improved customer loyalty and brand trust.

Instead of taking the position that hiring someone with a disability is an ethical act or a patriotic one, you’re approaching this from an return-on-investment perspective, so business owners focus on the bottom line. Why?

It’s not typically easy for small companies to recruit, train, and accommodate workers who have mental or physical disabilities. While a large corporation typically has a human resources department and a mandate to create a diverse employment pool, it can be a stretch for a small company operating on thin margins.

So it’s important for employers to see that hiring people with disabilities is a good business decision. As we started looking early on into economic and health care security for people with these needs, the first thing we realized is that people need to work. Our entire country is work-identified.

With all that small business owners have to do just to survive, and with the unemployment rate so high, is it a stretch to expect them to be proactive about hiring a disabled employee?

Yes; it is. But it’s a tough thing for anyone looking for a job right now. We think that small businesses always led the way out of economic hard times through their innovation and their hiring.

Most think of disabled people having cognitive disabilities when the fact of the matter is that the majority have physical or sensory disabilities. Of disabled people who are employed, 59 percent have a hearing impairment and 41 percent have difficulty with vision, which could mean they need large print and a magnifying screen. Those kinds of disabilities are easily accommodated with existing software. And for many people with minor hearing or visual impairment these days, you don’t even need to purchase additional software.

There is a recent government mandate that any government-procurement contract over $10,000 requires the business providing goods or services to take affirmative action to employ the disabled. How important is that?

Recent data show that 25 percent of all employed Americans are working under some kind of federal contract dollars, from the largest corporations down to the mom-and-pop suppliers. So the ramifications for small- and medium-sized businesses could be potentially huge.

Doesn’t this new regulation make federal contracting, which is already complicated and time-consuming, even more difficult for small businesses?

It could, although most policies do not impact small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Our mission was to make it easier for them. And often, it’s the smaller businesses that are the best employers for people with disabilities because they are more flexible, more focused on product and on the abilities one brings to the workplace. Many people with disabilities prefer to work for small employers.

Are small employers perhaps reluctant to hire disabled people because they worry about charges of discrimination or potential lawsuits if things don’t work out?

There are a lot of urban myths that make it difficult; we address some of them on the website. For instance, the disability standard has been tightened up and you have to have a disability that meets the standard in order to claim discrimination. Someone who does not want to get up in the morning or someone who is obese and too tired to walk up stairs doesn’t get protected by disability anti-discrimination laws.

What else holds back small companies from hiring, other than fears about legal complications or cost?

Many times, small employers have delicate questions that they don’t know how or where to ask. For instance, will a disabled person be able to get to work on time? Or even more basic: How will they actually do this job?

I have an employee who’s a full quadriplegic. He works alone in the office all day and has a personal attendant who helps him travel. We had to install a door that opens by remote control so he can get in, and purchase an $80 desk that is up off the ground so he can get the chair under it. I also bought voice-command software for $250 and a mouth stick that enables him to use it.

That’s it. Joe working as a full quad costs all of us a lot less money than Joe not working. The cost to taxpayers in Medicaid and long-term care to keep somebody with Joe’s condition in a nursing home is a lot more than what we might pay to facilitate him getting into the office, where he’s productive and does a terrific job.

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