5 Steps for Creating a Culture That Attracts and Welcomes Employees with Disabilities

by Bruce Anderson

With competition for skilled workers at a high and an increased focus on diversity, companies have started to recruit in often overlooked talent pools, including veterans, women returning to the workplace, older workers, and individuals without college degrees.

And companies are beginning to embrace one of the largest untapped talent markets of all — people with disabilities, a group that continues to be the most unemployed and underemployed U.S. population with 10.7 million individuals still out of workOnly 21.5% of working-age Americans with disabilities are part of the workforce compared to 68.4% of Americans without a disability.

Research released this fall suggests that businesses overlook individuals with disabilities at their own expense. Accenture teamed with the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and Disability:IN to study companies that do an outstanding job of employing and supporting people with disabilities and found that those firms easily outperform their competition.

The report, Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage, looked at 45 companies that have embraced disability inclusion and found that on average these businesses outperformed their peers with:

  • 28% higher revenue
  • twice the net income
  • twice the likelihood to have total shareholder returns that outperformed competitors

“It should not be lost on anyone that we are announcing this groundbreaking research at the New York Stock Exchange,” said Ted Kennedy Jr., chair of the AAPD board.

As your company works to build a diverse workforce, here are five tactics to make sure you include people with disabilities:

1. Make sure that people with disabilities can use your career site

Think about candidates with disabilities coming to your career site. Are your online applications fully accessible? According to a survey done by the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology (PEAT), 46% of respondents said their last attempt to apply for a job online was “difficult to impossible.” Of those, 9% were unable to finish the application and 24% required help.

Make your website more accessible by doing the following:

  • Ensure your site is compatible with a screen reader, an assistive technology that allows people with vision impairment to translate online information into speech or Braille. (Most operating systems have built-in screen readers that will let you test your website.)
  • If you have timed sections in your online application, also provide a way to override that feature. Or offer applicants a prompt that asks if they need more time.
  • Make visuals, including images and video, accessible. Some applicants will rely on descriptive text known as alt-text, which is picked up by screen readers and describes an image with audio. For videos, make sure you’ve included captioning for the hearing impaired. (As an added bonus, captioning will also boost your search engine rankings and user engagement.)
  • Make sure visitors can tab through your content and application without a mouse.
  • Keep it simple. Plain, concise language will make your website easier to navigate, particularly for people with intellectual and learning disabilities or cognitive issues.

For other ideas about improving the accessibility of your company website, PEAT isa useful resource.

2. Expand your recruiting to candidates with disabilities by partnering with advocacy groups

Companies that make a concerted effort to hire workers with disabilities will quickly find they’re not in it alone. Hundreds of organizations are out there to help, particularly when it comes to getting your job postings in front of potential candidates.

The Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) recommends:

You can also post openings at job boards designed for people with disabilities to widen your applicant pool. Two national job boards for people with disabilities areThe Talent Acquisition Portal and the Workforce Recruitment Program.

National organizations that support people with specific disabilities, such as the National Federation of the Blind, the National Association of the Deaf, and the Amputee Coalition, can also be helpful.

3. Build internship programs for people with disabilities

According to a study done by Cornell and the Society for Human Resource Management, companies that offer internship programs for people with disabilities are 5.7 times more likely to hire people with disabilities than companies with no such program.

There are a number of internship and recruitment programs that exist specifically for students with disabilities, including

“Everyone that I’ve seen who comes through [the Workforce Recruitment Program] is a megatalent,” said Carla Lucchino, former Assistant for Administration to the Secretary of the Navy, on a WRP video. “You have absolutely nothing to lose and, guess what, you get smart, capable people faster than if you used the normal hiring process.”

Your company may want to create its own internship program or modify its existing one. The Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy has a guide,Inclusive Internship Programs: A How-to Guide for Employers, that can get your started.

4. Fine-tune your interview process — and stay focused on candidates’ abilities

Make sure that your interviewing location is accessible to all people. Inform candidates about whether the interview will entail a test to demonstrate their ability to perform actual or simulated tasks. A candidate should have the chance to ask for a reasonable accommodation for either the interview itself or any job tests.

For example, if an applicant who is blind tells you that he or she will need help completing forms, line up that assistance. Offer a sign-language interpreter or other assistance for an applicant who is deaf. Provide details or specific instructions to applicants with cognitive disabilities.

Inform candidates of the travel directions to the interview site and give them an estimated end time, if requested, in case they need to arrange for transportation. When you meet the candidate and talk with them, speak directly to that person rather than their interpreter, companion, or personal attendant, counsels the Job Accommodation Network’s enormously helpful “Disability Etiquette.”

Interviews with a candidate with a disability should mirror your interviews of candidates who don’t have a disability. Focus on the applicant’s skills, experience, and professional knowledge, and concentrate on abilities, not disabilities.

The ADA also prohibits questions about a person’s disability in all pre-offer interviews. Those questions include:

  • What happened to you?
  • How will you get to work?
  • How many sick days did you take last year?
  • What kind of treatment do you get, and how often do you receive it?
  • Will you need accommodations? What sort?

Instead, as in any interview, ask candidates about how they would perform the everyday tasks that are part of the position you’re filling.

5. Create a disability-inclusive culture at your workplace

To build a culture and workplace that successfully includes employees with disabilities, start by ensuring that everyone has full accessibility to their jobs. Lori Golden, abilities strategy leader at Ernst & Young, says that includes “accessibility in the physical environment, the digital environment, and how we do things, the daily business behaviors.”

According to a study by the Job Accommodation Network, most (59%) accommodations cost nothing to make and the median cost for one-time accommodation was $500 per employee with a disability. Sometimes, accommodations can be funded by state rehabilitation programs; other times, businesses may receive federal tax credits to offset their costs.

There are many things a company can do to improve its disability inclusion, but here are two of the most important: First, support an employee resource group for your employees with disabilities. For example, both Walgreens and the U.K.’sNationwide Building Society have done so successfully. Second, include photos — and supporting alt-text — of employees with visible disabilities on your website and in all your recruiting material to show clearly that your company welcomes people with disabilities and is looking for more.

Final thoughts: Employees with disabilities will make your company more innovative

“People with disabilities,” Kennedy said, “want paychecks, not pity.” Research shows that employees with disabilities have lower absenteeism, more loyalty, and lower medical costs. And they bring a fresh, creative way of looking at problems.

“Not only do employees with disabilities comprise a large talent pool,” the Harvard Business Review reported, “it’s a remarkably innovative one: 75% of them report having an idea that would drive value for their company (versus 66% of employees without disabilities).”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. People with disabilities have often spent a good chunk of their lives figuring out workarounds so they can survive and prosper in a world designed for people without disabilities.