More than 56 million Americans — nearly one out of five — have a disability, according to the latest U.S. Census. Of these, 29 million are between ages 21 and 64. But only 18 percent are employed, according to the Department of Labor, and less than 30 percent of companies have disability-specific diversity policies or programs in place, according to a study conducted by the Kessler Foundation, the National Organization on Disability (NOD) and Harris Interactive.
“Employees with disabilities are often an overlooked and underutilized diversity segment in many companies in the U.S.,” said Meg O’Connell, vice president of corporate programs at the NOD. “Based on what we know about the performance and potential of employees with disabilities, and given projected labor shortages, that’s a mistake we can’t afford — especially considering pending federal regulatory changes that will require federal contractors to increase the population of individuals with disabilities in their workforce.”
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor may require federal contractors to alter how they track and accommodate employees with disabilities. If so, organizations will have to make fundamental changes to the way they manage these employees.
“Additionally, we have an aging workforce, and we know disabilities increase with age. And veterans — many of them with life-altering injuries — have been returning from Iraq and Afghanistan looking to enter the civilian workforce,” O’Connell said. “That means we’ll be seeing more employees with disabilities at work over the next decade.”
In light of these potential legislative changes and demographic trends, many diversity leaders seek to raise awareness about the challenges employees with disabilities face and ensure their organizations are doing everything they can to build a culture of inclusion.
Many leaders and managers have a limited understanding of what it means to have a disability. They assume it means an employee must be deaf, blind or in a wheelchair. But according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “an individual is considered to have a ‘disability’ if s/he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment or is regarded as having such an impairment.”
The ADA was enacted in 1990 to prohibit discrimination based on disability. It protects employees with a range of impairments such as hearing loss, speech impediments, learning disabilities, long-term depression, epilepsy and AIDS. It also covers employees who have recovered from a past disability such as cancer or mental illness, and those who may face discrimination because of a perceived impairment such as a limp. Based on 2010 Census data, approximately 10 percent of the U.S. workforce has a disability.
“Many managers don’t realize how many different types of disabilities there are, or how many employees within their organizations currently are working with a disability,” O’Connell said. “Simply raising awareness through training and workshops is a good place to start.”
According to the aforementioned Kessler survey, only 18 percent of companies offer disability training programs to their managers or employees. The study also found only 56 percent of human resource managers and executives could estimate the percentage of employees with disabilities who work in their organizations. Some 34 percent of companies tracked the disability status of their employees.
The ADA prohibits employers from asking about disabilities or medical conditions until after a conditional job offer has been made. If new regulations go into effect in 2013, more companies will be asked to seek out this information. To reduce barriers to equal employment opportunity for individuals with disabilities, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs is proposing a series of significant changes to its affirmative action and non-discrimination requirements.
According to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, “This proposed rule represents one of the most significant advances in protecting the civil rights of workers with disabilities since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
These changes are also raising concerns. In May and June, the HR Policy Association — which consists of chief human resource officers from more than 335 of the largest corporations doing business in the United States and around the world — hosted a series of regional meetings to discuss the proposed regulations. According to the association’s September report, none of the CHROs believed their organization could fully comply with the proposed regulations.
Dissatisfaction Among Disabled
Of all the changes proposed by the Department of Labor, the one that might produce the most immediate improvements with the least amount of effort could be the call for regular surveys of employees with disabilities. Many companies conduct annual surveys to gain a deep understanding of the employee experience. Using demographic variables such as race, gender, nationality and age group, they analyze survey data to ensure that various segments of the employee population are having a common positive experience. In recent years, a small but growing number of companies also have been asking employees about their disability status.
During the past five years, Sirota Survey Intelligence, a consulting firm that specializes in employee survey research, assembled a database of responses from employees with disabilities. Results indicate employees with disabilities face a number of unique challenges at work.
Data has been collected from 13 survey administrations in seven multinational companies using 118 survey questions assessing employee satisfaction levels with topics such as company leadership, immediate manager effectiveness, pay, career development, teamwork, employee engagement and employee commitment. Respondents also were asked to indicate if they considered themselves to have a disability. Of the 846,048 employees who responded to this item, 25,182 (3 percent) indicated they did.
To determine if attitudinal gaps exist between employees with and without disabilities, Sirota conducted a series of comparative analyses in October. Three key findings emerged:
1. Employees with disabilities were less favorable about their work experience than their co-workers who did not have disabilities. Across 111 of the 118 items in this study, employees with disabilities were less satisfied with their work experience than their peers without disabilities.
2. On average, employees with disabilities were 8 percent less satisfied than their co-workers without disabilities with their experience at work. That’s more than twice as large as any other demographic-based difference in the database such as male versus female attitudes.
3. The largest attitudinal gaps (10 percentage points or more) were found on items that measured employee perceptions of respect, fairness, influence, leadership, empowerment and communication (Figure 1). In each of these areas, employees with disabilities were at least 10 percent less satisfied than those without disabilities.
Further analysis was conducted to determine the best way to motivate and retain employees with disabilities. The data suggests two central ideas take precedence. Employees with disabilities are engaged at work and satisfied with their companies when they feel valued and when they feel they can grow and develop. Like other employees, they want basic respect and the opportunity for career growth. The difference is that many employees with disabilities don’t feel they are valued or can develop at work. Thus, senior leaders should continuously assess their own organizations and address any gaps.
Seven Steps to a Successful Strategy
Some leaders think reasonable accommodations are the best way to increase support for employees with disabilities. But while reasonable accommodations can be helpful and are necessary under federal law, a more comprehensive strategy is needed to create a culture of inclusion for employees with disabilities. Consider these seven steps.
1. Know the numbers: According to the “World Report on Disability,” a 2011 study produced by the World Health Organization and the World Bank, more than 1 billion people around the world have some type of physical or mental disability. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people with disabilities in the U.S. have more than $1 trillion in disposable income. By hiring employees with disabilities, an organization can gain access to a sizable talent pool with valuable insights into a large market.
2. Include disabilities in diversity policies and programs: Most companies have diversity policies and programs, but according to the Kessler survey, only 29 percent of companies have ones that are disability specific. By ensuring people with disabilities are included and explicitly noted in diversity policies and programs, diversity executives can raise awareness and promote inclusion within their organizations.
3. Evaluate the employee lifecycle: Most companies have robust programs in place to help attract, retain and develop their workforce. But these programs are often designed without employees with disabilities in mind. “Every day we hear stories from people with disabilities about the challenges they face during the hiring process,” O’Connell said. “For example, recently a woman with dyslexia and a B.A. in economics shared her challenges in the online application process. She wasn’t able to submit her application because she needed extra time to read and respond to questions, but the system kept timing her out after 20 minutes. When she searched for a resource to work around the system she wasn’t able to find one and no one would help her.” Evaluate how the company attracts candidates and what the hiring process and on-boarding and development programs are like. By evaluating each element of the employee lifecycle and ensuring there aren’t stumbling blocks for employees with disabilities, diversity executives can ensure an organization builds an inclusive and supportive culture.
4. Assess attitudes: One of the best ways to show an organization is dedicated to creating and maintaining an inclusive culture for employees with disabilities is to ask about their experience at work on the employee survey. Leaders open the door for feedback by including a disability-focused demographic item such as: “Do you consider yourself a person with a disability?” and allowing employees to self-identify. By conducting analysis diversity executives can determine areas of concern, and results can be benchmarked against external norms.
5. Dispel myths: Some managers think employees with disabilities are not as productive as their peers. Others think it costs too much to make reasonable accommodations, or it’s difficult to find qualified candidates. These are myths that can be challenged with facts. For example, more than half of all accommodations cost nothing, according to the Job Accommodation Network. Further, employees with disabilities are as dedicated to their organizations and capable of learning new skills as their peers, based on observations from more than 400 leaders participating in the Kessler survey. Training and informational programs can be used to dispel these myths and correct misperceptions.
6. Empower employees with disabilities: According to the NOD, technology is the great equalizer for employees with disabilities. Assistive technologies such as software recognition packages, screen readers and alternative keyboards can provide employees with disabilities with the help they need to perform to their full potential. Both the NOD and the Job Accommodation Network offer support and advice about job accommodations as well as ADA compliance assistance. Affinity groups, peer networks and coaching can help employees with disabilities create connections within the organization.
7. Set goals and monitor progress: One of the best ways to translate a disability strategy into reality is to set goals and monitor progress. Using a balanced scorecard approach, goals can drive improvements across a number of critical areas, including hiring rates, promotion rates, retention rates, employee engagement and job level.
“At the end of the day,” NOD’s O’Connell said, “it’s about changing mindsets. Employees with disabilities have a tremendous amount to offer organizations. If diversity executives can help senior leaders and hiring managers focus on a person’s ability and potential — rather than their disability or limitations — they will be taking their organizations to the next level in diversity and inclusion.”
Patrick Hyland is director of research and development, and Pete Rutigliano is director of consulting for Sirota Survey Intelligence, a global consulting firm specializing in employee survey research. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Regulations in Flux
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs is proposing a series of changes to its affirmative action and non-discrimination requirements for federal contractors and subcontractors that would impact the way companies recruit, retain and manage employees with disabilities. Proposed changes include:
• Setting a hiring goal of 7 percent of workers with disabilities in each job group of the contractors’ workforces.
• Inviting all job applicants to voluntarily self-identify as an individual with a disability at the pre-offer stage of the hiring process.
• Conducting regular anonymous surveys of their employees and providing all respondents with an opportunity to self-identify as an individual with a disability.
• Maintaining written records of all employment decisions involving individuals with disabilities, including rationales.
• Developing and implementing written procedures for processing employee requests for reasonable accommodation.
• Engaging in a minimum of three specific types of outreach and recruitment efforts to recruit individuals with disabilities.
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