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A Guide To Hiring Disabled Workers

The next time you’re hiring, there’s a good chance you could meet an applicant with a disability. According to the 2000 Census, about 50 million Americans—about one in five people—have some form of disability. And more than two-thirds of unemployed people with a disability say they would rather work.

 

Even if you’re not hiring, a current employee could end up with a disability as a result of an accident or a diagnosed disease. The possibility increases with the age of your workforce.

 

Successfully integrating these staffers into your workplace will benefit you and them.

 

This report offers strategies for making necessary accommodations, valuing workers with disabilities, handling privacy concerns and getting help from Uncle Sam.

  

The Benefits Of Doing The Right Thing

Many employers are discovering there are significant payoffs to employing people with disabilities.

 

Studies consistently show that workers with a disability “have average or better attendance, lower turnover, . . . average or better job performance, and average or better safety records than their non-disabled counterparts,” according to author Mark L. Lengnick-Hall’s book “Hidden Talent: How Leading Companies Hire, Retain, and Benefit From People With Disabilities” (Praeger Publishers, 2007). 

 

In addition, a national consumer survey published in 2005 found that 92 percent of Americans look favorably on companies that hire workers with disabilities. Fully 87 percent of the public would rather do business with such companies.

 

Another study published the same year indicated that 97 percent of employers who had hired someone who had a disability said they would do so again.

 

When the Job Accommodation Network surveyed more than 1,000 employers who have staff with disabilities, the results were overwhelmingly positive:

  • Two-thirds of employers said providing accommodations improved interaction between co-workers
  • Nearly 60 percent said accommodations improved company morale
  • More than 80 percent believed they had retained a valued employee by providing the accommodation
  • More than 70 percent said an accommodation had improved the worker’s productivity

ADA And Beyond

The federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protects qualified people with disabilities from discrimination when employers are hiring, firing, promoting and so on. A qualified individual is someone who can do the essential functions of a job with or without reasonable accommodation (for more on accommodations, see the following section).

 

Note that people who have a disability must meet all job-related requirements—skills, education, experience—of the position they’re applying for or already occupy.

 

The act applies only to businesses with 15 or more workers, although a handful of states require smaller businesses to comply. To be sure, call your state department of labor.

 

On Jan. 1, 2009, an amended ADA went into effect. The amendment doesn’t change the definition of disability per se, but it does alter the meaning of some of the terms used and how the standard is to be applied to individuals. A disability is still defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” But now the list of affected life activities is broader.

 

It includes activities such as walking, standing, speaking, and reading, as before, but also major bodily functions. That encompasses processes of the immune system, bowel, brain, and so on. Now a condition such as cancer or Crohn’s disease could be covered even though it produces no outward signs of limitation.

 

Also, in determining who has a disability, employers must discount the beneficial effects of mitigating measures such as prosthetic devices, medication to control a disease, or assistive technology. So, for example, someone who has epilepsy that is controlled through medicine is still considered a person with a disability because the law looks at his limitations without the medicine.

  

Providing Reasonable Accommodation

The point of a “reasonable accommodation” is to make it possible for an employee to perform essential job functions.

 

The word reasonable is significant: The law doesn’t require you to jump through hoops to make a job accessible. Here are key points to remember:

  • The employee must request an accommodation
  • If several accommodations might be effective, you can choose among them and are not required to provide the one the employee prefers
  • You need not offer accommodations for individuals who are not qualified for a position
  • You need not remove essential functions from a job or reduce production standards in order to provide accommodations
  • You need not provide accommodations that pose an undue hardship to your business, given its size and profitability

Accommodations can include making your facility accessible to people with disabilities, permitting modified work schedules, supplying assistive technology, and restructuring the tasks for a given job.

 

Fortunately, most accommodations are surprisingly inexpensive, with a median cost of about $240, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). About 20 percent can be made at no cost; more than half cost less than $500. And the cost of adaptive technologies and software keeps going down.

 

Once workers have requested an accommodation, discuss what they think might work. They may already have effective strategies in mind. Solving the problem could be as simple as adjusting work hours, providing breaks, or buying an inexpensive tool or software program.

 

If you need help with the process, consult with the U.S. Department of Labor Job Accommodation Network (www.jan.wvu.edu). Its services are free.

 

Finally, employers who hire workers with disabilities may be eligible for several tax credits and deductions: the Disabled Access Credit, the Architectural Barrier Removal Tax Deduction, and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. In addition, there are new Work Opportunity Tax Credit rules for “wounded warriors”—veterans who have a service-related disability. To learn more, speak with your tax advisor or visit the IRS’s Web site, www.irs.gov.

  

A Positive Environment For All

Creating a productive work environment for everyone means moving beyond legal compliance.

 

Kriza Jennings, formerly a diversity consultant for the Association of Research Libraries, says the goal is to “create and foster a workplace climate where everyone feels welcomed, valued and respected.”

 

Here are some ways to encourage a healthy environment of mutual respect:

  • Speak privately with workers who have disabilities to seek their opinions on whether your company is disability-friendly. What could make things better?
  • Make sure all employees—with or without disabilities—know you will do your best to assist them with problems that might affect their work.
  • Treat everyone fairly, applying policies and performance standards to all alike.
  • Immediately address any instances of derogatory speech or disrespectful behavior aimed at any employee. Make it clear that such behavior won’t be tolerated.
  • Use—and encourage employees to use—proper terms for people who have disabilities.
  • Encourage employees to ask whether someone needs assistance—not to make assumptions about what sort of help is needed.
  • Treat each person as an individual and focus on abilities, not limitations.

Disability laws are all about fairness, not special treatment. To avoid causing friction among able-bodied workers, you must apply standards equally to all.

 

If workers complain about the fact that someone is receiving an accommodation, explain privately that that it is your policy to help any staffer who is having on-the-job difficulties. Make the point that such issues are personal and that you respect the privacy of all employees.

  

What You Can And Can’t Say

Good communication is vital to a healthy workplace culture. But by law certain information can’t be divulged to employees. In addition, laws limit the way you and applicants or employees can talk about disability.

 

  • You can’t disclose to other employees that you are providing reasonable accommodations for a staffer who has a disability—or tell employees that another worker has a disability.
  • If an able-bodied worker asks why you’re making accommodations, say that you are providing employee assistance to comply with federal law. Leave it at that.
  • A disability may be obvious, and the employee with a disability may discuss it with others if he chooses.
  • If you know an employee has a disability, you can ask whether she needs an accommodation.
  • When hiring, you cannot ask about the nature or extent of a disability; the person’s health; or his history of emotional illness, injury or disease. Nor can you ask, “Will you need an accommodation?”
  • You can ask about applicants’ previous experience, skills and education. You can inquire whether they know of any reason they could not do the job’s essential functions—or how they would perform the job with or without an accommodation. Also, you can provide the company’s policies, hours and attendance requirements and ask whether applicants can meet them.

For More Information

Learn more about hiring and employing disabled workers by visiting these Web sites.

Job Accommodation Network

Free technical assistance and information to help employers and employees who need accommodations; a service of the U.S. Department of Labor

www.jan.wvu.edu

 

Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center

A national network of 10 regional ADA Centers that provide information, referrals, resources and training on ADA

www.dbtac.vcu.edu

 

Earnworks.com

A free employment consulting service that connects employers and people with disabilities, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy

www.earnworks.com