Diversifying Your Workforce: Guidance for Employing Individuals with Disabilities

There is little doubt that businesses benefit from a diverse workforce.  Much has been written over the years promoting diversity programs and the benefits that businesses receive from their implementation. An increased labor pool, improved employee morale, more creative solutions to business problems, and a positive public image are just a few of the benefits that are often associated with a diverse workforce.  As employers have sought to diversify their workforce and reap these benefits, the aspects of diversity that seem to have generated the most attention are gender, nationality, ethnicity and age.   However, there is a large group of talented, hardworking and qualified individuals that is often overlooked; individuals with physical and/or mental disabilities.

Of course, the employment of people with disabilities is generally viewed as the “right” thing to do.  What greater way is there for disabled individuals to gain independence and to achieve their goals than through employment?  So why don’t more companies do it?  There may be a variety of reasons preventing employers from tapping into this large and ever-growing labor pool.   First, finding qualified applicants with disabilities may be a challenge.  Second, companies may be nervous about the cost of compliance with laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or other state and local laws that apply to disabled workers.  Or finally, employers may worry about the possibility of discrimination claims should problems arise.  The good news?  All of these concerns can be addressed with knowledge, preparation and training, and the benefits associated with hiring workers with disabilities will likely outweigh any perceived risks.

Tips for Hiring Individuals with Disabilities:

Employment Policies and Procedures

The inclusion of individuals with disabilities must begin at the top.  Company-wide policies and procedures should reflect the belief that all employees, regardless of disability, are valued.  Employers should implement effective communication strategies regarding its commitment to diversity and equal employment opportunities.  More importantly, all managers and supervisors should receive diversity awareness and sensitivity training to help them address the needs of individuals with disabilities.

Recruitment

How can employers find qualified individuals with disabilities who have the necessary qualifications?   Check with local agencies who provide support to individuals with developmental disabilities in job settings.  Working with these agencies will likely provide access to a pool of disabled workers and can be a very cost-effective alternative to hiring traditional employees.  Some agencies have Job Development Specialists, or similarly named positions, who will meet with employers to design programs that allow developmentally disabled worker(s) to fit the specific needs of the employer.  In some cases, the costs associated can be minimal as there would be no recruitment costs, no fringe benefits to be provided, little to no supervisory needs, and on-going support from job coaches.

Alternatively, employers can check with the U.S. Department of Veterans Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (“VocRehab”) to learn more about recruiting disabled veterans to join their work force.  Additional benefits for employers are available when disabled veterans are hired.  Specifically, the VA and other federal departments offer financial incentives, including tax credits and salary subsidies to employers who hire qualifying veterans.  In addition, VocRehab may purchase and/or subsidize the cost of any and all necessary work equipment for qualified veterans to perform their job’s essential duties.  For more information about these and other opportunities for employers, check out the VocRehab website at benefits.va.gov/vocrehab.

Hiring, Retention & Protection Against Claims of Discrimination

Whether an employee begins employment with a known disability or becomes disabled while employed, employers with 15 of more employees must be mindful of requirements set forth under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended.  Many state laws provide similar rights and often apply to employers with even fewer employees.  Under the ADA and these similar state laws, a “reasonable accommodation” may be required to allow an employee with a disability perform the essential functions of the job.  And while courts have helped define the boundaries of the phrase, what actually constitutes a reasonable accommodation in each individual case remains one of the most difficult determinations an employer must make.  To assist with this process, companies should:

  • Establish clear and consistent procedures for disability accommodations requests.
  • Train and re-train managers and supervisors on the definition of disability and to recognize and to respond to formal and informal requests for reasonable accommodations. Remember that these requests can be made verbally or in writing and need not mention the American with Disabilities Act or state and local laws specifically.
  • Ensure that disability-related policies and forms are up-to-date, consistently utilized and ADA-compliant.
  • Understand the nuances of any state and local laws that may impose additional obligations on the company’s employment of individuals with disabilities.
  • Understand the overlap and interplay between federal and state disability and leave laws.
  • Utilize the resource designed to assist human resources professionals with the duty to provide reasonable accommodations called the Job Accommodation Network (“JAN”). Funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, JAN provides free, expert and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues.  Its website, askjan.org, provides an impressive amount of information to assist employers with formulating reasonable individualized accommodations for disabled workers.
  • Check out the federal government’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program.  The Rehabilitation Act of 1983, as amended, authorizes annual funding to the Vocational Rehabilitation Program to assist people with disabilities to prepare for and enter the competitive workforce.  VR services vary from state to state but in general, VR can act as a recruiter and consultant for employers, conduct job analyses, provide rehab engineering services for architectural barrier removal and worksite modifications, and conduct awareness training for a company’s management team.

Additional Benefits

We know the many benefits of an inclusive workforce.  What may not be as well known is that the government offers some important tax benefits and other financial incentives to companies who employ individuals with disabilities.  Specifically:

  • The Disabled Tax Credit provides a non-refundable tax credit for small businesses that incur expenditures for the purpose of providing access to persons with disabilities.   The credit is available to small businesses whose gross receipts did not exceed $1,000,000 for the preceding taxable year and who employed no more than 30 full-time employees during the same period.
  • The Architectural & Transportation Barrier Removal Deduction allows businesses to choose to deduct up to $15,000 for making a facility or public transportation vehicle more accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.
  • The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) provides incentives to hire qualified individuals from certain target groups who have consistently faced significant barriers to employment such as veterans and individuals with disabilities.

Additional Resources

In addition to the suggestions offered here, a variety of resources is available to employers who wish to bring individuals with disabilities into their workforce and to provide support along the way.  The Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Enforcement Policy, the Veterans Administration, The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) and the Job Accommodation Network are just a few.  They are easily accessible and can further assist employers with the recruitment, hiring, retention and advancement people with disabilities.

A workforce that truly reflects the variety of generations, cultures, values and disabilities that exist in our communities will result in success for both the employer and its employees.  The variety of experience and knowledge that an inclusive workforce offers will improve an employer’s ability to serve a broad range of customers, enhance its reputation within the community, enlarge its customer base, and build a more productive and loyal workforce.   If done well, hiring individuals with disabilities is much more than just the “right” thing to do.