The Untapped Talent of Workers with Disabilities

By Jefferey M. Yussman, Esq.

Unemployment for people with disabilities hit 16.8 percent last summer. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that in fiscal 2011, it received more complaints of disability-related employment discrimination than during the previous year.

Much misunderstanding persists concerning the individual capabilities of people with special needs. Researchers at Cornell University, for instance, found that within the leisure and hospitality industry, the top concern of potential employers was that those with disabilities could not perform necessary work. Second in line were cost considerations. They also “found prejudice, stereotyping, and limited choices in employment” to be workforce barriers.

Stereotypes do a disservice to all involved. Employers may well be cheating themselves of loyal and highly competent workers if they don’t take the time to understand the specifics of a candidate’s skills and needs. What’s critical is identifying job opportunities that present a real match between the requirements of all parties. When job-place accommodations will be necessary, it helps if an advocate can ensure that both a future employer and colleagues understand what will be required for all to succeed.

Largely funded through federal (Social Security) and state programs, career support for individuals with special needs are available. For example, my own son, who is now 21, enrolled in a vocational rehabilitation program several years ago, which was designed to help him assess his interests, skills and training needs. Some programs counsel individuals regarding resume preparation and the interview process, then identify job opportunities. In certain cases, such as my son’s, onsite job coaches may accompany a new-hire to work for a stipulated period of time in order to ease the transition. For a recorded webinar on topics of related interest recently presented by the Social Security Administration (and hosted by Ray Cebula of Cornell University), go to http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/edi/m-wise-webinars.cfm.

Given the budget debates at all government levels, such programs are unfortunately vulnerable and potentially at risk. Ironically (in my opinion), cutbacks would be counter-productive, since empowering people to work is an investment that should actually lower long-term costs to the taxpayer.

When an individual with disabilities is hired, there’s much to be gained on all sides. The new employee becomes increasingly independent and involved in the community and has more disposable income. Employers gain skilled, dependable staff, while earning a reputation for good citizenship. Colleagues help to eradicate stereotypes as they share with others their personal experience of working with individuals who have special needs. And the burden on the taxpayers is also reduced!