Big corporations see the value of hiring people with disabilities, yet their chances of getting a job haven’t improved much.
In 2017, 18.7 percent of persons with a disability were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 65.7 percent. The unemployment rates for persons with and without a disability declined from the previous year to 9.2 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively.
Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability, has been collecting data on disability since the mid-1980s.
“A number of gaps have been closing,” she wrote in a 2017 Money Watch article. “Unemployment, unfortunately, is one thing that hasn’t been improved appreciably since we started measuring.”
Meanwhile, IBM Corporation, Procter & Gamble, Ernst & Young, Cisco Systems and S.C. Johnson lead the way throughout the country in hiring people with disabilities.
They know it’s smart business and “impacts their marketing and company loyalty,” explained Jenny Piatt, director for business at Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS).
“Companies like Meijer, Microsoft, Walgreens, CVS, Lowes and Prudential are very intentional in making sure they understand the buying power of people with a disability is as great as people without a disability,” said Piatt.
Meijer, headquartered in Walker, Mich., near Grand Rapids, has a program, Hiring Individuals With Disabilities, in place, explained Robyn Afrik, the company’s diversity and inclusion manager.
“Our company has improved our processes, teamwork and deliverables because of it,” Afrik said. “We want our workforce to represent the communities we live and shop in. In fact, there’s never been a time when we haven’t.”
Six years ago, a company leader asked how Meijer could make more inroads employing people with disabilities by removing barriers to increase the firm’s talent pipelines and make it sustainable, notes Afrik. That lead to Meijer adding a position that deals with hiring individuals with disabilities.
On another front, over the next three years Ernst & Young plans to hire dozens of people on the autism spectrum to work on its accounting and analytics projects.
Earlier this year the issue of hiring people with disabilities received another push when Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, whose daughter has autism, and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein, who is legally blind, made stops around the state in what was dubbed the Hidden Talent Workshop Tour.
They stressed the need for company leaders to change their perspectives and to start hiring more people with disabilities. It’s not an act of charity, Calley said, it’s a chance for people to see ability in people and give them a chance.
The number of adults with disabilities is projected to increase in Michigan by nearly 250,000 from 2.1 million in 2011 to nearly 2.4 million in 2030, according to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services data. While jobs and accommodations for disabled workers have improved substantially since the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, there’s still room for advancements.
A Rutgers University study shows that bias among employers may be another factor in the hiring equation that leaves people with disabilities at a disadvantage. In the study, which involved 6,000 fictional accounting positions, two-thirds of the applicants disclosed their disabilities, including spinal cord injury or Asperger’s Syndrome.
Neither of those conditions would interfere with the ability to complete the accounting work. Even though the applicants were otherwise equally qualified, people with disabilities received 26 percent fewer responses from employers.
People with disabilities who land jobs, on average, earn less and workers with disabilities who have at least a high school education earn 37 percent less on average than their peers without disabilities, according to an analysis by the American Institute for Research.
In 2013 the Labor Department addressed the hiring gap by requiring all federal contractors to try to fill 7 percent of their workforce with disabled people, which is defined by the ADA as someone with a mental or physical impairment that limits life activity.
Employers who hire disabled people can also tap into tax credits, like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit that ranges from more than $1,000 to nearly $10,000 depending on the employee hired and the length of employment.
The Disabled Access Credit gives money back to small businesses that pay for workplace structural changes to provide access to persons with disabilities. The Architectural Barrier Removal credit is another potential tax deduction that encourages businesses of any size to remove architectural and transportation barriers to aid the mobility of people with disabilities.
Piatt at MRS said the tax incentive may be attractive, but it’s not necessarily what gets a business knocking on its doors.
“It’s the shortage of talent and looking at expanding their talent pools,” said Piatt. “The tax credit starts the conversation, but we’re trying to make sure we’re making the right connectivity with our talent pool and the positions they’re trying to fill.”
MRS helps 40,000 people with disabilities annually by providing education-related services and training for teens and adults. Vocational rehabilitation counselors focus on career development training and education.
“Part of our role is not only to help in entry level jobs, but then to develop a job path,” Piatt said.
Michigan has 79 MRS vocational rehab locations that are federally and state funded.
“We have staff who are fully dedicated to providing services to business customers to connect people with disabilities with internships, job shadowing, informational interviews, apprenticeships and employment outcome,” Piatt said. “Our goal is competitive and integrated employment. These are individuals who are making wages appropriate to their jobs and they are integrated with all employees in the company.”
Piatt said she is seeing more business leaders explore the possibility of hiring people with disabilities.
“Businesses are much more intentional about asking how they can retain the talent they have and make people feel comfortable to raise their hand and say that they have a disability,” Piatt said.
After the job placement, MRS provides follow-up and support services to ensure the employee and employer are satisfied.
MRS also works with the state Department of Education, local school systems, Michigan Career and Technical Institute, community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities to develop statewide school-to-work success and to help students with disabilities pursue self-employment options.
Focused on helping
Disabled workers are an untapped solution to many staffing needs, according to Brent Mikulski, president and CEO of Services to Enhance Potential (STEP). The nonprofit organization helps nearly 1,300 people with disabilities and other mental health needs in Wayne County annually.
“Sometimes an individual with a visual impairment might benefit by having a larger computer screen, for instance,” Mikulski said. “Someone who has mobility issues might need a larger workstation and we work with Michigan Rehabilitation Services to help provide those accommodations.”
STEP has the staff and services in place to ensure success for the disabled person in the workplace, said Terey DeLisle, STEP employment and training services director.
“We offer support before, during and after hire to both the employee and the employer, including assisting with on-the-job training, accommodations and possible tax credits,” she said. “Most importantly, we match applicants’ skills and interests to businesses’ needs.”
STEP operates thrift stores and donation centers where workers earn a paycheck while learning retail skills — such as stocking shelves or bagging items — they can take to other employers.
For 46 years the Wayne County organization has tackled big and small issues for people with disabilities in the workforce, including navigating the most efficient routes to and from work and getting bus cards and tickets.
The organization provides job training in a variety of fields and can help businesses identify employment needs, resulting in making businesses more efficient by hiring people with targeted skills and abilities.
Pieces come together
STEP staff establish a close relationship with the disabled person, their family, care providers and others during life changes by navigating Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, home help services, Section 8 housing, food stamps, wage records, medical determinations, applications and appeals issues.
They also develop an employment plan and assist in preparing resumes, identifying job leads and contacting prospective employers. In some cases, STEP staff will go with clients to their interviews and identify accommodations needed to complete job requirements.
Work Skills Corporation in Brighton is another organization that provides assessment, training and job placement services for people with disabilities.
“We focus on people’s abilities and help employers get great employees who work hard, show-up for work and provide them a great person,” explained WSC President and CEO Tina Jackson. “We focus on peoples’ abilities.”
Employers are much more receptive to hiring people with disabilities today compared to a few decades ago, she added.
“They know they are going to get people who will do a great job and are loyal,” Jackson said. “I think people are realizing what a valuable resource they are.”
WSC services include on-site job coaching and training. Supervisors consider abilities, work conditions and employee preferences when placing clients in jobs.
“It’s all individualized, based on the person,” Jackson said. “Our goal is to help people become independent with training, so they can be competitively employed.”
The range of WSC clients is varied.
“We work with folks who are developmentally impaired,” Jackson said. “They can be greeters and baggers. And we have others who have PhDs who had a stroke. We’ve placed nurses, high-end security and IT people. We work with people who experienced a head injury and help them get back to work.”
Eye on independence
JVS Detroit assists about 800 teens and adults with a variety of disabilities achieve long-term work and life goals.
“We adapt the services to meet the specific need or level of support that each individual has,” said James Willis, JVS Detroit vice president of workforce development.
Clients are also given the option to work or volunteer in their communities to build skills under the supervision of JVS staff. They receive ongoing support with coaches who go out to the clients’ place of work to assess the environment and determine if anything can be done to make the work experience better.
JVS also helps facilitate internship programs for high school students on the verge of joining the workforce.
“We refine their skills and they gain valuable experience to prepare them for the world of work,” Willis said.
Seeing a need
The Michigan Bureau of Services for Blind Persons guides people who are blind or visually impaired to find jobs and achieve independence through training.
The goal is to empower clients to define their goals and identify appropriate training and other BSBP services that will help. Funded by federal and state taxes, BSBP offers counseling and training in skills for daily living without vision. BSBP provides adaptive equipment, computer software and postsecondary education.
The BSBP Training Center is a residential facility in operation since 1970. Open year-round, it has accommodations for up to 29 students who can stay from a few weeks to several months depending on individual needs and goals.
Employers are finding that people with disabilities are reliable, on average taking less days off than other employees and typically staying on the job longer. The Chicago Lighthouse studied the retention rate of employees in its Illinois Tollway Customer Care Center, which employs veterans and people who are blind, visually impaired and disabled. On average, the employees with vision loss or other disabilities and veterans had a retention rate of 1.7 years. The retention rate for employees without disabilities or who were not veterans was only 0.9 years.
Another study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics during the 1940s and a more recent one from the DuPont company found that workers with disabilities had a significantly higher performance in the area of safety than their counterparts without disabilities. In other words, employees with disabilities are more aware and conscientious of safety in the workplace.
“People with disabilities know what it takes to overcome obstacles,” said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. “They’re some of the most hardworking, dedicated people you’ll ever meet. It often makes good business sense. These employees usually have lower absenteeism, greater longevity and fewer workplace injuries.”