What Staffers Need to Know About Job Seekers with Disabilities

As the US unemployment rate rests at a low level not seen since the 1960s, employers are struggling to find qualified candidates to fill many open positions. This is good news for people with disabilities, a population that comprises the largest minority in the country, and yet remains deeply misunderstood and underemployed.

The unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is nearly twice as high as the general worker population: 7.3% versus 3.4% — and remember, those rates just count individuals who are actively looking for work. Employers may be writing off too many strong candidates, with skills and experience needed in today’s workforces, for reasons that aren’t in the résumé.

Fortunately, there are ways to benefit from unlocking this hidden talent pool. It just takes a little understanding, awareness and — sometimes — flexibility to find great employees hiding in plain sight.

The first step is understanding that there’s no right way for an ideal candidate to “look.” Each applicant has unique strengths and personal qualities that can make him or her a fit for a position.

Individuals with disabilities can bring substantial experience with them to a new role. In fact, the majority of people who receive Social Security Disability Insurance have a 22-year work history. This group in particular has an advantage when returning to the hiring pool, as they can access Social Security’s free Ticket to Work program, which helps ease their path back to full employment with supports an employer won’t need to provide.

Many work-site accommodations for individuals with disabilities are achievable with little cost or disruption. A disability is simply a set of a few logistical difficulties that can be overcome through the individual’s interest, commitment and, occasionally, creativity. Often, employers can bring their own solutions to the table by making simple accommodations that will help a person with a disability to perform at his or her most productive. Other times, offering the option to work remotely can do the trick.

Not every disability will even be obvious. Millions of Americans have unseen medical conditions, such as diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, hearing loss, etc., which aren’t readily apparent at first glance. Individuals with these “invisible disabilities” can face criticism and discrimination when people don’t understand they may just need to work in some different ways to succeed. Employers can become powerful allies in changing these paradigms when they hire and accommodate individuals with disabilities in their workplace.

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Other employees may create their own challenges in working with individuals with disabilities. It’s an unfortunate reality that requires HR to include these employees in its adaptation and engagement process. This is no different from other situations involving employee stereotyping or diversity.

A strong interview process is especially important. One of the best ways to avoid discomfort for you and applicants during the interview process is to focus on what really matters: their qualifications and experience for the job. This way, you’ll be giving all the potential employees in your hiring pool a level playing field. Multiple meetings may also give your team more opportunities to begin to feel comfortable with someone whose disability will quickly fade into the background once they’re part of the team.

Each of us, no matter our ability level, has personal struggles and challenges in our daily lives, such as troubles with children or a spouse, an illness of a parent, or other serious issues. Candidates and employees with disabilities are no different. It’s important to get to know these people as individuals in order to determine specific needs and requirements.

While it will take some work on the part of the HR and management teams, the benefit is obvious: hiring great employees that others may be dismissing.

MORE: Diversity and inclusion training can help prevent discrimination and harassment

Paula Morgan

Paula Morgan
Paula Morgan is is a return to work case manager for Allsup Employment Services, a national, SSA-authorized employment network.

Paula Morgan

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