Employing People Who Have Disabilities – A Culture of Respect and Trust.

I must be getting old. I clearly remember the debates about bringing ethnic minority employees into the workforce, paying women equally to men, and even preserving the workplace wisdom provided only by older workers. Today, such debates seem as antiquated as whether women are capable of riveting airplane panels, as thousands of ‘Rosie the Riveters’ proved in World War II.  Yet today a similar debate rages over whether people who have a disability can successfully hold a job. In fact, it’s the same old debate.

To properly engage in this debate, we must better understand some definitions. In the US, having a disability does not mean that a person uses a wheelchair, or has a developmental disability such as Down’s Syndrome, although these are popular notions. In 2009, the US Congress greatly expanded the definition of a disability to give it a broad interpretation when they amended the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Today, millions more Americans fall under prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of disability by employers.

But that’s all negative gain – telling employers what they must not do. The trust and respect are gained with an understanding, usually by experience, that the old arguments against hiring minorities and women are just as inapplicable and biased as they were in 1940, 1960 and 1980. People with disabilities are a different population, but the biases, arguments and tactics are the same. And as was the case with women and minorities, most resistance is based on misinformation. For example, here are the facts behind the misinformed objections I hear most often related to hiring people with disabilities.

  1. People with disabilities are a safety and health risk. My company, Peak Performers, has been seeking out and hiring disabled people for more than 20 years and our workers’ compensation rates are no higher or lower than any other employer in temporary staffing. And, of course, under the Affordable Care Act, insurers are no longer permitted to exclude or rate-up people with pre-existing conditions.

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  1. Bringing people with disabilities into my workforce will disrupt the morale and integrity of my workforce. Nope. They are already in your workforce and you just don’t know it. They’ve been hiding their condition(s) for fear that revealing that they have [fill-in-the-blank condition] will cost them and their families money, security, advancement, trust, respect and the myriad of other working conditions made available to non-disabled workers. This is no cause for alarm though. The fact that they are already there among your workforce suggests that their condition is not adversely affecting their performance, or your culture. Having a disabling condition is becoming more and more like having a nose – nearly everyone has one.
  1. People with mental or psychiatric conditions are dangerous in the workplace. Nope, unless, of course, you are prone to ignoring alarming behaviors. Some people are just plain mean. Don’t hire mean people. You can tell the difference when you talk with them. Some of the most successful, visible, popular and famous people have a diagnosis of some kind and have overcome the effects of their condition to manage whatever it is, such that it does not manage them.
  1. How can I trust them? Just do it. I can tell you from decades of experience in making that same decision that they will be no better and no worse than anyone else you hire. Everyone needs time off to fix a broken car, or to pay their last respects to Grandma. You can start to worry on the 3rd grandmother.

So, if you regard yourself as one of the enlightened employers who have readily accepted women, minorities, people of other cultures and older workers into a broad cross section of your workforce, for equal pay and for equal work, then you can gain further competitive advantage in your marketplace by consciously reaching out to people who have a “condition” in an equal manner to recruit, hire, train, employ and promote. But I caution: you too may make many new friends from among this population, just like all others to whom you have opened your employment ranks. That trust and respect goes both directions.

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Charlie Graham

Charlie Graham
Charlie Graham is the founder and CEO of Peak Performers, a nonprofit staffing agency headquartered in Austin, Texas.

Charlie Graham

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