Meaningful Employment Despite Disabilities

As CEO of staffing company Peak Performers, Charlie Graham is dedicated to helping people with disabilities find meaningful employment.

And it’s not just about helping disabled employees find work — Graham truly believes companies can benefit from tapping into this particular talent base.

“Peak Performers has been employing people with disabilities for more than 20 years for the state of Texas, and I can tell you from experience that this talented employee base will add value to your team and your business in ways you never before imagined,” Graham said. “Those who think differently and find valuable candidates where others fear to look are the leaders who will come out on top.”

Below are edited excerpts from Graham’s interview with Diversity Executive.

What are the biggest challenges facing people with disabilities in the workplace?

Contrary to what some may assume, not all disabled people are in wheelchairs or have developmental disabilities. Many have acquired their condition as an adult, either from an illness or injury. So, they have completed their schooling and some even have advanced degrees and certifications. Because of that, they don’t actually consider themselves “disabled” and typically don’t seek government services for employment.

In short, people with disabling conditions have often experienced long-term unemployment and been passed over for jobs, often because of their conditions. Anyone who has ever had a career interruption knows how important it can be to return to work again. In the same way, employees with disabilities are typically motivated to prove themselves. They work longer hours, are reluctant to take time off and are diligent about ensuring they are delivering quality work on deadline.

While it’s natural for an employer to ask about gaps in employment, prospects do not typically want to disclose their condition for fear they might be passed over. Therefore, their disabling condition remains invisible.

What can employers do to create a better work environment for employees with disabilities?

First and foremost, employers can take the initial step to hire people with disabilities and treat them like the rest of the team. Creating an environment where every employee, including people with disabilities, feels valued and respected is essential to retain your best talent. Ensuring that you are creating a healthy work environment for employees with disabilities is not that different from creating a healthy work environment for all employees.

Create a space where employees feel comfortable disclosing disabilities by offering flexible work options and access to accommodations. Offer alternative formats for written materials and technology. Train your managers to focus on performance, skill level and other measurable attributes instead of factors which are beyond a person’s control. Establish a culture of respect and honesty. Lead by example. Maintain open, clear channels for feedback to identify what is working and where you can improve.

Why is it important to develop a culture that is inclusive of people with disabilities?

We all perform better at our jobs when we aren’t distracted or worried, and that extends to employees with disabilities. Removing the barriers of judgment and mistrust that may exist can help employees be themselves and reach their full ability. A closed-off environment can impact a team member’s involvement in daily tasks or their commitment to the organization as a whole, eventually resulting in low morale and decreased productivity. Creating an inclusive culture opens up opportunities for collaboration and new ideas.

How can hiring and supporting employees with disabilities benefit an organization?

Smart employers looking for unique ways to compete and improve will recognize that assumptions about employees with disabilities are rarely accurate. It comes down to hiring people from different backgrounds, cultures, educational institutions and more — the more diverse your employee base, the more interesting work you will produce.

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.

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.

What motivated you to found an organization like Peak Performers?

I am personally dedicated to the life-long mission of setting a new standard of employment for people with disabilities. Having a disability changes your perspective on life, but for many, does not change your desire to work. We built Peak Performers into a strong resource for workers with disabilities seeking career opportunities to give everyone a fair chance at reaching their goals.