Practical Guide to Hiring People with Disabilities

After reading a recent article from the Society of Human Resource Management, we at Peak Performers were reminded of just how much fear and misunderstanding still exists when it comes to hiring people with disabilities. In the article, SHRM uncovers that significant biases still exist, with 32% of managers saying they would be uncomfortable hiring someone with a mental-health disability, and 42% of HR professionals believing work can’t be done by someone with a learning or attention disability. Perhaps most striking is a lack of disability training and corporate recruitment initiatives for people with disabilities that are in place.

We’ve hired a lot of people with disabilities over the last 25 years. Over 80% of our current staff have a qualifying disability (and many of those are non-observable disabilities). Below, we share our insights into successfully hiring and retaining individuals with disabilities:

People with Disabilities are Everywhere

Disability crosses all races, cultures, sexes, and identities—it affects people of all walks of life. Disability takes many forms; these include physical, mental, and emotional conditions. Conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, PTSD, depression, diabetes, and epilepsy are examples of disabilities that are not usually observable but have an impact on life and work and are qualifying conditions under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Additionally, chronic medical conditions (such as having or previously having had cancer) and perceived disabilities (such as dwarfism or physical disfigurements) also qualify. It is estimated that under these definitions, 20% of the US workforce has a disability. You may already be working with someone who has a disability, or you may have a qualifying condition yourself.

People with Disabilities are Still People

People with disabilities are all around us. Often, they want to be treated the same as any other employee. The majority of employees with disabilities do not seek special considerations; they want to be evaluated based on the merits of their work. Many people with disabilities are fully independent adults who strive to have happy, productive working lives. Having a disability will often have little or no bearing on their ability to do a job.

Accommodations Often Aren’t That Bad

The current laws call for “reasonable accommodations” and seek to develop a dialogue between the employee and employer. Accommodations are often not as costly or difficult as an employer might perceive, and also do not require you to fundamentally treat an employee with a disability differently than others. In our experience, most of our employees with disabilities don’t even require an accommodation in order to get their work done.

When they are requested, many accommodations are slight alterations to the work space to ensure that employees will be comfortable, productive, and healthy. For an employee with photosensitivity epilepsy, we often accommodate them by permitting them to wear sunglasses indoors or provide them with a light filter for their computer screen. For an employee with scoliosis, we provide them with a standing desk. The most common situation we encounter is when an employee needs to take time off or modify their work schedule in order to attend doctor appointments. (Individuals without disabilities also go to the doctor!) When an accommodation request does not seem reasonable or compatible with the essential functions of the job, you may want to consult with a seasoned HR professional or legal team for guidance. We also have links to more resources below.

We also encourage employers to consider the possibility that making your workplace more accessible (particularly for those with mobility-related disabilities) may prove to be an investment that enhances the way your entire workforce uses the space. Similarly, making your digital workspace more accessible and comfortable to use, may help many of your existing employees be more productive in their current role. 

It all starts with a conversation.

They Know What They Need

HR managers usually don’t need to figure out how to accommodate an individual—the employee has often encountered this situation before and has an idea of a possible solution. After all, they’ve been living with their condition! They understand their physical conditions and limitations better than anyone else, and they are more likely to seek out jobs where they feel they can be successful. A person who is deaf is less likely to seek out a position that requires a heavy use of phones and other verbal interactions with customers. A person with multiple sclerosis is probably not targeting construction jobs in their job search. As an employer, the best thing you can do is be available to have a conversation and seriously consider the accommodations they suggest. Additionally, consider that at this time they may not be needing an accommodation, but they may need to explore accommodations later if their condition worsens.

What About Current Employees? 

Unfortunately, injuries and illnesses happen over time—it’s part of being human. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of people with a disability rises dramatically for those past the age of 64.

Disability inclusion in the workplace presents an enormous opportunity to do what’s right, to take care of your own, and improve organizational morale by alleviating fear of displacement through injury or aging. When a current employee approaches you to discuss disability, turn to a trusted HR resource or even the Americans with Disabilities Act itself to understand how to proceed. In general, seek to engage the employee in a conversation and have them recommend an accommodation if one is necessary. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

·      Their first choice is probably to stay in their current role. Approach the situation with the intention of making this possible. Discuss their limitations and what they would have trouble doing, or what is currently causing them discomfort in their role. Can this be accomplished by a minor alteration to the work environment or schedule? This may also be accomplished through minor “role restructuring” where you delegate non-essential tasks to other employees (such as lifting boxes in an office environment).  

·      Consider lateral moves. In the instance of someone not being able to perform the essential functions of the job, opportunities for continued employment may exist in other departments and/or under different job titles. If a lateral position is not open or the individual is unqualified to perform that work, then you may also offer another position for which they are qualified but pays less than their current role—but this should be your last resort.

·      Do not discuss with others. Co-workers may notice and ask about it. It’s imperative that you do not discuss disability or medical information that was shared in confidentiality. Many workers with disabilities do not want to be regarded differently in the workplace.  However, it’s also important to stress that you are not offering preferential treatment to that employee. The Job Seekers Accommodation Network recommends saying, when asked, “[your organization] has a policy of assisting any employee who encounters difficulties in the workplace, and that many of the workplace issues encountered by employees are personal, and that, in these circumstances, it is the employer’s policy to respect employee privacy.”

I’m on board! What now?

What Do I Do Now?

So what can your organization do to be ready?

1)    Look at your work. Review your jobs and the type of work that is performed. What kinds of physical requirements might affect someone’s ability to succeed in the role? For example, does it require lifting or strenuous movement? Does it require speaking verbally or seeing?

2)    Look at your workforce. Have a conversation with your team about what a disability is and the value of a diverse and inclusive workplace. Talk about the kinds of disabilities that are both observable and non-observable. Your team knows their work environment and may offer ideas on how the work or space might be presenting a challenge for individuals with disabilities.

3)    Have policies. Many problems arise because of inexperienced managers or HR teams who have to handle a complicated situation without having any policies or training to guide them. Have policies written down and train your on-site managers ahead of time. Have conversations about how to appropriately and compassionately respond to these situations. Highlight the importance of keeping the door open to a dialogue between employees and management.

4)    Consider adaptation plans. Would your workforce benefit by having grab bars in the bathroom? Are your computer applications able to interface with JAWS or other screen reading software? Do you have flexible scheduling options for employees who need to frequently go to the doctor or take time off to recover from a flare up?

Disability is everywhere and often requires little-to-no accommodation to the workplace. Furthermore, people with disabilities know themselves best and will often seek out roles that they can be successful in–much like any other jobseeker! There are many benefits to the organization for having a more inclusive workplace, including making some of your current employees more comfortable. Keep these ideas in mind when taking proactive next steps to hire and retain individuals with disabilities.

Additional Reading

  • We encourage you to learn more about what disabilities are and explore examples of qualifying conditions.
  • Jobseeker Accommodation Network is an exhaustive resource for employers and employees to get accommodation advice.
  • They also offer advice to managers for discussing disability.