Article by Nicholas Wyman.
One of the key factors in running a successful business is attracting and retaining talent. Whether hired from the outside or mentored from within, skilled and loyal employees are the backbone of any business. But when businesses strategize to expand their pool of skilled workers, they might be overlooking a key demographic: people with disabilities. “Disability” can include physical impairments such as reduced mobility, hearing loss or vision loss; and intellectual impairment.
Myths about people with disabilities in the workplace
Why are people with disabilities overlooked? Many employers fear people with disabilities present more costs than benefits and are reluctant to invest in them. Employers are also likely to believe at least some of the common myths about people with disabilities in the workplace, including:
- They can’t work;
- They have a higher absentee rate;
- They can only do basic, unskilled work;
- They’re not as productive as their co-workers;
- They cost more to recruit, train and employ;
- They reduce their co-workers’ productivity;
- They’re not eligible for government financial incentives (such as funds to hire apprentices); and
- They don’t fit in.
But as we’ll see, these assumptions are highly questionable, and they’re preventing valuable people from joining the active workforce.
Figuring out disabilities
Just how many people with disabilities are being sidelined because of unfounded beliefs?
According to the World Bank, 15% of the world’s population have some form of disability, one-fifth of them significant. In the US, 61 million adults have a disability – that’s more than 18% of our population. Disabilities affecting mobility, hearing, vision, and cognition are the most common.
People with disabilities are both unemployed and under-employed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, not even one in five people with a disability was employed in 2019, and a third of those who were employed were in part-time work. In the same year, two-thirds of people without a disability had jobs, and just 17% of those were part-time workers.
But that was before the pandemic. Workers with a disability were hit hard by Covid layoffs, with 1 in 5 workers with a disability losing their jobs, compared with 1 in 7 in the general population. Advocates fear those job losses could be permanent, as many employers do not have a solid commitment to attracting and retaining people with disabilities.
The problem is not unique to the U.S. A United Nations fact sheet notes that between 50-70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed in industrialized countries, and 80-90 percent in developing countries.
Even when people with disabilities are employed, they face barriers. In my home country of Australia, a government commission is documenting the problems people with disabilities face at work, and some of the stories are harrowing. The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation of People with Disability is currently holding hearings and is expected to complete its findings by late 2023. But it’s already heard about the barriers to employment people with disabilities face, including:
- Environmental – where premises are physically inaccessible, or there are inadequate communication facilities;
- Organizational – where there’s little help or adjustment to transition to work smoothly; or
- Structural – e.g., income support programs that are poorly integrated with the labor market for people with a disability.
These stories and statistics reveal a global problem rooted in persistent myths about people with disabilities in the workplace. But it turns out research doesn’t back up those myths. In fact, research shows organizations that employ people with a disability enjoy multiple benefits, such as:
- Improved profitability (profits and cost-effectiveness, turnover and retention, reliability and punctuality, employee loyalty, company image);
- Competitive advantage (diversity of customers, customer loyalty and satisfaction, innovation, productivity, work ethic, and safety);
- An inclusive work culture; and
- Ability awareness.
Providing workplace accommodations to make sure people with disabilities are fully integrated into the workplace also reveals more benefits than costs. In its annual survey, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network (JAN) questions employers about providing workplace accommodations. The most recent survey found that:
- Employers are open to providing accommodation for employees to retain them on the job;
- Most employers report zero or very low costs associated with accommodation;
- With accommodations in place, workers with disabilities are more productive and less likely to be absent;
- Employers save on workers’ compensation or other insurance costs;
- Employers can more easily promote a person with a disability; and
- Employees who’ve been accommodated have better interactions with co-workers, increased morale, and increased productivity.
It’s becoming more and more clear that attitudes toward employing people with disabilities are out of synch with reality. In my next blog, I’ll talk about sources of support for employers who want to make their workplaces more inclusive and productive by actively seeking out and hiring people with disabilities.