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The disabled are willing and able to work

Brent Mikulski sees it happen regularly: A business hires a disabled worker at least partially to claim the federal tax credits that are available for doing so.

But then the company is so satisfied with the worker’s performance that the tax incentives become an afterthought — or even less.

“Employees will ask right up front if any tax breaks are involved with hiring a disabled person,” said Mikulski, president and CEO of Services To Enhance Potential (STEP), a nonprofit organization that provides supports and services to nearly 1,300 people with disabilities and other mental health needs in Wayne County.

STEP’s staff will work with employers in completing the paperwork for tax credits available for hiring individuals from certain target groups who have consistently faced significant barriers to employment.

“But then they’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, I completely forgot about that opportunity because that is not the biggest benefit of hiring this person,’” Mikulski said.

Indeed, with employers of all kinds struggling to fill positions in a tight labor market, disabled workers are an untapped solution to many staffing needs, Mikulski said.

“More than 80 percent of people with disabilities in Michigan, and more than 70 percent nationwide, are unemployed,” he said. “Many of these individuals want to work. They just need the company to hire them.”

With October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month, STEP and other community rehabilitation organizations are shining a spotlight on the capabilities of disabled workers.

“It gives us a chance to celebrate companies that employ diversity and inclusion practices and raise awareness for those companies that don’t,” Mikulski said. “What we want to be able to do is be at the table and talk. We don’t want employers to automatically rule out the thought of including someone with disabilities in their workforce.”

Simply put, not being willing to consider hiring disabled workers is a poor business practice, Mikulski said.

“Employers today are not only finding it difficult to find skilled talent, they are also having a hard time retaining top talent,” he said. “Yet, talk to any CEO who has hired a person with an intellectual or physical disability and they will tell you that that person is dedicated, productive and loyal.”

An opportunity, not charity
Mikulski also advises employers not to consider hiring a disabled worker, such as those with mild cognitive or physical disabilities, as merely an act of charity.

“That’s the wrong mindset,” he said. “This isn’t charity work. This involves hiring someone who is highly capable of doing their job. You should do this because you have a need, not because you just want to do something good. The benefit that you will feel good about what you’ve done is just a bonus.”

In other words, it’s a classic case of companies doing well by doing good, Mikulski said. Not only does a company gain a capable, enthusiastic worker, but hiring disabled people also is likely to boost morale among the rest of the workforce, he said.

“It’s contagious,” he said. “People will take pride in the fact that they work for a company that is committed to diversity and is willing to offer these opportunities.”

Overcoming barriers
That said, job matching and training are essential components to hiring disabled workers, Mikulski said. The underlying assumption to all the benefits of hiring disabled people is that they are able to perform the necessary functions of a job.

For its part, STEP helps prepare disabled people for the workforce in various ways. For example, it operates thrift stores and donation centers where workers earn a paycheck while learning retail skills — such as stocking shelves or bagging items — that they can take to other employers.

Beyond providing such general soft skills training, STEP also has job coaches who will work with potential employers to design “hard skill” training regimens to ensure that the specific skills needed at the job site are provided prior to placement.

Also, STEP provides students in their last year of high school opportunities to participate in several employment transition programs, including Project SEARCH. Project SEARCH is a national evidenced-based employment model designed to take graduating seniors and place them at a host site’s work setting for their last year of school. Since 2010, with the support of DTE, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan and Henry Ford College, the programs have achieved a job placement rate of more than 80 percent. Alumni have secured employment in fields such as accounts receivable and payable, Mikulski said.

Transportation to work is another consideration — as it is for all types of workers, Mikulski said.

“Gaps in the transportation system are really a geographic issue for the entire population,” he said. “It doesn’t get any easier when talking about someone with a disability.”

To help address that potential stumbling block to employment, STEP supplies free bus passes and also partners with private transportation companies to provide workers with reduced fares directly to any Wayne County location.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the number of adults with disabilities is projected to increase from 2,147,000 in 2011 to 2,392,000 in 2030. “That means the labor market will continue to grow for some top talent to fill the gaps in employment today, including thousands living with an intellectual or physical disability,” Mikulski said.

Employment opportunities and accommodations for disabled workers have improved substantially since the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed 25 years ago, Mikulski said.

“However, a disability should not define a job candidate, and we can all do more to promote an inclusive workforce where everyone has a chance to succeed to their full potential,” he said. “For example, we need to continue to support funding for special education and high school transition programs. Companies that have hired people with a disability need to speak up and speak out as to what a great business decision it was, and we all need to think beyond the label and encourage Michigan companies to support and celebrate workplace policies of diversity and inclusion.”

More information about Services To Enhance Potential and its employment training services for disabled people is available at stepcentral.org or 313-278-3040

Mike Turner

Mike Turner, a graduate of Michigan State University, has worked as a business writer and editor for daily and weekly newspapers and other publications throughout Michigan. He now operates a freelance editing and writing business and works as a public relations specialist and copywriter.