Hiring Workers With Disabilities Pays Off

Elaine Katz is responsible for planning, implementing and monitoring a comprehensive grant-making program for the Kessler Foundation, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of people with physical and cognitive disabilities. With more than 25 years of experience working and consulting with nonprofit organizations, Katz has made it her mission to tackle issues of diversity and inclusion within all businesses and make sure that people with disabilities are well-represented. She serves on the board of directors of the Disability Funders Network, is board chairman for JESPY House — a program for adults with learning and developmental disabilities — and is on the program committee for the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers.

Katz recently spoke with Diversity Executive. Below are excerpts from the interview.

What is the Kessler Foundation?

Kessler Foundation is a national organization dedicated to improving employment and job training options for Americans with disabilities. In addition, Kessler Foundation is a global leader in rehabilitation research that improves cognition and mobility for people with multiple sclerosis, brain injury, stroke, spinal cord injury and other disabling conditions. Hiring people with disabilities enhances the diversity of a workforce — they can offer new ideas and better solutions, just as people without disabilities can do. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the nation. Companies that do hire people with disabilities have proven that adding people with disabilities to the workforce boosts the bottom line. They do the job just as well, if not better, than employees without disabilities. Turnover and absenteeism decrease. Workplace loyalty, dedication and productivity increase.

How did OfficeMax end up being the grant recipient?

Kessler Foundation’s grant was actually with the Association of People Supporting Employment First in Rockville, Md., which partnered with OfficeMax to create a job training model that allows individuals with significant disabilities to receive the pre-training necessary to close the skill gap that may have prevented many individuals from successful employment in the past. The APSE/OfficeMax project demonstrates what can be accomplished through public/private partnerships. By collaborating with disability-related organizations, corporations such as OfficeMax are launching pilot disability employment initiatives and proving that there is a high return on investment. The OfficeMax initiative is on track to further establish best practices to be replicated across the nation. Nevada, along with three other states, is working on this pilot program. The OfficeMax initiative offers training for jobs in both retail and distribution, giving people with disabilities a choice on the kind of job they would like to pursue.

Why was the Nevada Department of Training and Rehabilitation so important?

The Nevada Department of Training and Rehabilitation is one of the organizations that is helping identify participants for the OfficeMax job training program. In each state that the pilot plan is being administered, the state department of rehabilitation is helping to identify, screen and enroll participants. In Illinois, for example, an agency called Aspire is providing the training facility and the placement. In Nevada, the trainer at the OfficeMax distribution center is paid for by vocational rehabilitation.

Why is it so important to ensure that people with disabilities receive the training necessary to have meaningful careers?

As baby boomers age out of the workforce, there will be a real need for talent. In the future we will need every American who can work to do so. Think about it — we have 10 million Americans with disabilities, most of whom want to work, ready to get off the sidelines and help make American companies stronger.

When more people are earning paychecks, the economy improves. People with disabilities can, and want to, contribute to the economy.

Perhaps fear prevents employers from hiring job seekers with disabilities. They are unsure of how to work with someone who may appear to be different. They fear the cost of accommodations and health care will be higher. These are myths. The cost is comparable to hiring any other employee. Including people with disabilities increases the bottom line.

What other partnerships do you expect to make in the future?

Kessler Foundation is developing strategies aimed at providing jobs for large numbers of people with disabilities, not the traditional one person at a time approach. Public/private partnerships are one successful strategy. Private funding, like we provide, of disability employment initiatives leads to a higher return on investment for public companies. Moreover, these initiatives have the potential to become self-sustaining.

Our 2013 Signature Employment Grants include a partnership to support PepsiCo Americas Beverages and Ability Beyond — formerly Ability Beyond Disability — in maximizing efficiency while hiring and retaining individuals with disabilities at Pepsi bottling facilities throughout the country.

In addition, we have issued a grant to the Easter Seals Greater Washington Baltimore Region to provide startup funding for the Veteran Staffing Network, a social enterprise for veterans, wounded warriors, National Guard/Reserves and their spouses. The social enterprise model is another strategy that can create jobs for people with disabilities.

Furthermore, we have issued a grant to the San Diego State University Research Foundation to support an innovative and engaging professional workplace skills curriculum for college students with disabilities, combined with career-oriented work experience and internships, peer and professional mentorships and placement assistance.

Finally, we have issued a grant to the Vanderbilt University Kennedy Center in Nashville to replicate and scale up a Kessler Foundation Community Employment Grant pilot with special interest group partners of the National Collaborative on Disability, Religion and Inclusive Spiritual Supports from the University Centers on Excellence. Member universities include the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Kentucky and Vanderbilt. The collaboration will build the capacity of congregations to expand, refine and evaluate customized processes that equip faith communities to support employment for members with disabilities.

What other projects is the Kessler Foundation working on that help promote diversity in the workplace?

Since 2005, Kessler Foundation has distributed $30 million in funding to initiatives nationwide. ?We’ve seen great success with social enterprises that combine a nonprofit mission of mostly employing people with disabilities with good business sense. One social enterprise we funded — Hudson Community Enterprises of Jersey City, N.J. — started out with 10 employees. Their social enterprise generates $4 million in revenue a year with 125 employees, 70 percent of whom have disabilities.

We also helped fund a successful and sustainable initiative to hire people with disabilities in Lowe’s. One grantee — the National Telecommuting Institute — is training and placing people with disabilities as home-based call center agents for clients such as the Internal Revenue Service. Another grantee — the Center for Head Injury Services in St. Louis — used grant money to create Destination Desserts, a purpose-driven social enterprise business that employs people with disabilities to bake and sell cookies, brownies, cupcakes and other delicious items. They use a food truck to extend their brand awareness and sell products. Most importantly, they are providing opportunities for training and employment for people with brain injuries.

Eric Short is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.