Thursday, January 21, 2010

Six ways to NOT recruit people with disabilities as employees and customers

By Keith Hosey

I’ve worked with large and small companies across Kentucky over the years consulting on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Most of those companies have a true and sincere desire to integrate people with disabilities into their workforce, and, in turn, into their customer base. I can’t say I blame them. Other than the general consensus that “it’s the right thing to do,” people with disabilities and their networks, as reported by the U.S. Census, represent $1 trillion dollars in disposable spending. That’s an enormous amount of potential revenue. National studies have shown that people with disabilities are more loyal, staying with a company longer than non-disabled employees and 92% of the American public view companies that hire people with disabilities more favorably than those that do not. 87% of the public would actually prefer to give their business to companies that hire people with disabilities.

As I said, I’ve had the privilege to work with some really great people and companies that are at a point where disability is so engrained into their business model and corporate culture, that oftentimes they don’t give it a second thought. I applaud all their work and often forget that this isn’t a given. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) earlier this month announced that 93,277 workplace discrimination charges were filed with the federal agency nationwide during Fiscal Year (FY) 2009, the second highest level ever. The FY 2009 data show that private sector job bias charges (which include those filed against state and local governments) alleging discrimination based on disability, religion and/or national origin hit record highs.

In light of that, I give you “Six ways to NOT recruit people with disabilities as employees and customers.”

6. Don’t show disability in your ads. A recent Adweek article states: “Like African Americans, Hispanics and other once-marginalized minority groups, people with disabilities have become an increasingly visible fixture of mainstream advertising… in an effort to appeal to this growing—and deep-pocketed—constituency. Furthermore, by putting characters who are blind or use wheelchairs front and center, big brands have found an opportunity to tout their social conscience and generate goodwill among nondisabled consumers.” Whatever your products or services are if you don’t show people with disabilities in your regular corporate image, they’re likely to associate less with your brand than one that does include disability. Similarly, who do you want to recruit for your job openings? “Minorities and Veterans encouraged to apply.” Does that EEO statement include people with disabilities? And, just as importantly are you going to them and recruiting where people with disabilities already are?

5. Don’t include disability in diversity. The companies I’ve seen that are most successful in including people with disabilities into all facets of their companies treat disability as another affinity group (aka the aforementioned largest political minority in America). It’s a mistake to not include disability as part of a larger diversity initiative. Companies that treat disability as a “special” group – somehow different from other minority or affinity groups – are missing the point. “Special” is a word that many people with disabilities despise. Disability is a part of life and this group wants to do their jobs or shop like the rest of us. Like other affinity groups, they have an identity as a group and even a month to celebrate (October is Disability Employment Awareness Month). So treat people with disabilities in the same manner you would any other affinity group. But remember the motto of the disability right movement: “nothing about is without us.” If you’re going to include people with disabilities into your diversity initiatives or celebrate October for your employees with disabilities, make sure they are involved in the planning.

4. Don’t be flexible. Nothing’s more frustrating to hear when working with a company than the phrase, “that’s just how we’ve always done it.” If there were a slogan for EEOC suits, that would be it. Stupid policies cause stupid problems. If your company has a policy about beverages at workstations or structured breaks and you’re NOT working an assembly line, you’re probably violating the ADA. The ADA is all about bending unnecessary rules to level the playing field for people with disabilities. By unnecessary, I mean rules that are not of business necessity or not because of potential risk of harm. One of the easiest and cheapest accommodations for employees is flextime/flex schedule and I’ve seen it fought tooth and nail at companies because “nobody else gets to come in at 10 and leave at 6.” In an office setting, is it the end of the world if your bookkeeper flexes their time?

3. Don’t get interpreters. It’s not about interpreters, ok, it is, but it’s not just about interpreters. Actions speak louder than words. The easiest way to non-verbally say, “I don’t value you as a person” is to not provide reasonable accommodations. This includes making accommodations available in the job application process. If you’re not going to give a Deaf applicant an interpreter for an hour interview, what do they think you’ll do on the job? The same is true with alternative formats or any other accommodation. On the consumer end, the same rule applies. If you don’t provide the same equal access to your valued customer how welcomed does that customer feel? An acquaintance who uses a wheelchair told me one day that if you show him a dentist who lets him stay in his own (reclining) wheelchair, then he’ll show that dentist twenty new patients.

2. Don’t be accessible. If you ramp it, they will come. I had a business manager once tell me that she didn’t know why she needed to make her business accessible because she’s never had a customer in a wheelchair. I don’t doubt it one bit. There were three steps at the most accessible entrance. The most sure way to keep people with disabilities away is to not let them in. When looking at accessibility, don’t stop at the front door. Make sure everywhere in your business is accessible, not just to chair users, but those with low vision, hearing loss and other disabilities. Is your website accessible? Does it matter? Ask Target and the $6 Million they paid out to the National Federation of the Blind in the Federal Ninth Circuit. If your company does most (or all) of its recruiting online, you won’t get many applicants with disabilities with an inaccessible website. I remember a couple years ago a local non-profit revamped their website and sent it out to all their constituents with pride. I contacted several individuals about the inaccessibility of their new site. It wasn’t until I emailed their development director to let her know that their “donate now” button was inaccessible to about 20% of their potential donors that anything happened.

1. Don’t ask for help. Here’s the good news, you don’t have to be an expert because I am. And so are many of my counterparts and colleagues locally and throughout the country. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Other companies have been through this before and many times we’ve been there, either as their cheerleaders or their architects. Use your resources and the expertise around you. Here is the directory of State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies and here are Centers for Independent Living.

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