If you had an open position for someone who had sales and customer-service skills, you’d want to interview Mark Eiduson. Your first impression of Eiduson on the telephone would be that of a confident, sincere, friendly person who handles himself professionally. When you met him, you’d be impressed with his good eye contact, his readiness to laugh and his commitment to customer service. Eiduson is an attractive, apparently healthy man in his 30s who seems to have his life and his priorities in order.
He’d have a lot to offer an employer, including an excellent attitude. He’d tell you, “I have sales skills that I can use to sell photocopiers or cars or whatever you need to sell, but I want to do more than that. There’s so much happening in our culture now, so much disorientation and aimlessness, that I want what I do to make a positive contribution. I don’t just want to get mine and get out.”
As you talked further with Eiduson, you’d learn something else about him—he’s a person with a disability. He lives with chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that he manages successfully with medication, a good diet, adequate rest and knowledge of his own warning signals.
Hidden disabilities such as Eiduson’s are quite common within the work force. Many analysts say that employers will hire and find more people like Eiduson among their existing employees as the decade progresses. Janna Calkins, a reasonable-accommodations consultant in Ventura County, California, says that there are three reasons to believe that during the ’90s, employers will be dealing with more persons with disabilities than ever. The reasons are:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which went into effect on July 26, 1992, for employers of 25 people or more, mandates equal opportunities in the workplace for people with disabilities
- The working population is aging, and this aging will cause increased numbers of employees with disabilities
- Medical technology is improving the chances that an injured person will be able to return to work after rehabilitation.
Myths hinder ADA compliance.
Although the ADA just went into effect recently, for some employers, compliance with its standards fits into their existing business practices. These employers state that they haven’t needed to make changes in their hiring practices or shift gears to be more alert to applicants who may have disabilities. For example, Samsonite Corp. in Denver has employed deaf workers for years. When Larry Winslow, vice president for HR, joined the company a year ago, he found that many Samsonite employees had learned sign language in order to communicate with deaf co-workers. He became accustomed to people signing during meetings—or to deaf applicants during interviews.
What jobs do the deaf employees do at Samsonite? Whatever jobs they’re qualified to fill. What accommodations has the company made? In the production area, there are lights in addition to the standard beepers on the forklifts to alert employees to the forklift’s motion. When asked what other accommodations the company has made for the deaf employees, Winslow looks puzzled, asking what else would be necessary? He explains that Samsonite does a good job of retaining employees—including the employees with disabilities—and that the company is glad to provide this simple assistance so that deaf employees “can remain viable, productive members of the organization.” He adds that hiring people with disabilities at Samsonite is “positive, supportive of all activities of the organization. It has become a way of life, not something that needs mandating or legislating.”
Unfortunately, not all employers share Samsonite’s attitude toward the hiring of workers with disabilities. The high visibility of disability issues has led some companies to hire attorneys to help them avoid compliance. Calkins suggests, however, that the changes created by compliance with the ADA won’t be as drastic as these people think—or fear—they will be. She points out that employers already accommodate special needs, such as those of parents who must leave early to pick up a child at school or employees who must have regular appointments with doctors.
Most employers also already employ workers with disabilities. High blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and musculoskeletal difficulties, such as arthritis, all are disabilities. The ADA protects employees with those and more-visible disabilities from workplace discrimination. It covers all aspects of employment, including hiring, compensating, training, promoting and firing.
Cheryl Russell, director of development for United Cerebral Palsy Association in Orange County, California, says that employers who react to the ADA by avoiding compliance are responding from “fear about additional costs, fear about loss of productivity, and fear about what other people will think.” She sees the fear about what other people will think as “90% of the problem.” Russell stresses that most of these fears can be alleviated by talking to people who work with people with disabilities.
Samsonite’s Winslow also says that employers who resist compliance may be reacting from “fear of the unknown, fear that it will be used against me, fear that it will threaten the way I operate.” According to his own experience, those fears have no basis.
Russell says that a low collective consciousness about disabilities causes much of the fear in people and promotes the phenomenon of employers hiring lawyers to plot avoidance of the ADA. To squelch that fear, she routinely invites employers to visit work-activity programs. In one such program, people with cerebral palsy sort clothes hangers for Seattle-based Nordstrom. Based entirely on sound business principles—an employee must meet performance standards to stay in the program—the hanger-sorting job provides meaningful work and income to employees who have cerebral palsy. The United Cerebral Palsy Association interviews and manages these employees, who work off-site. The program provides Nordstrom with a means of incorporating persons with disabilities into the work force and to get necessary work done.
Understanding conquers fears.
Calkins says that many employers don’t know that the majority of disabilities are musculoskeletal injuries, specifically repetitive-motion and back injuries. Unpublished data from the California State Department of Rehabilitation indicate that 47% of the disabled population have musculoskeletal injuries, 15.75% have unspecified, endocrine, skin-or learning-disorder conditions, 9% have circulatory conditions, such as heart disease, 9% have respiratory or digestive disorders, 5% have head injuries, and only 3.25% have visual, hearing or speech impairments. She suggests that the fear that most people experience comes from an apprehension of those people with a mental condition—approximately 11% of the population of people with disabilities.
Many employers have come to positive terms—even with people who are mentally impaired—by making the required accommodations without considering them accommodations. If an employee has difficulty concentrating, for example, logic dictates management to:
- Provide a less-crowded work area for the person.
- Allow him or her to work for one supervisor rather than five.
- Take distracting posters off the wall near the employee.
Most workers with mental conditions control those conditions with medication. If they don’t take the medication and consequently begin exhibiting unusual behavior, they’re asked to leave the workplace until the behavior is under control.
Reasonable accommodation can often be simple to implement. One employer cites the example of a schizophrenic/catatonic busboy who works in a fast-food restaurant. He occasionally freezes if his internal voices demand too much of his attention. Co-workers know that they simply need to tug on his sleeve to bring him back to reality—hardly a complex reasonable accommodation.
An employee with a disability often doesn’t need costly accommodations, despite employers’ fears that employees with disabilities may want or need expensive special equipment to help them fulfill essential job functions. Many people with disabilities needing special equipment actually prefer to own that equipment so that they can retain it if they change jobs. Sometimes when an employee acquires a disability, the employer develops a purchase agreement so that the equipment is available immediately. Then the employee buys it from the employer over time. Prices for many such products are decreasing, as the disabilities that they serve become more common.
Incorporate the employee with a disability into the workplace.
Once the fear is eliminated, companies must take a proactive approach in hiring people with disabilities. Samsonite and Nordstrom provide two examples of how it can be done. National Medical Enterprises (NME), located in Santa Monica, California, provides another. NME has instituted the Overcoming Challenges Employment Initiative, a program that focuses on the employment of qualified people with disabilities.
Cherrie Handy Pomerantz, program specialist with NME, interviews people with disabilities. Various rehabilitation agencies or service providers refer the candidates to NME. Currently, people with disabilities represent 3.2% of NME’s 50,000-employee work force.
Handy Pomerantz believes that a candidate with a disability should take the same tests as any other candidate, with a reasonable accommodation if necessary. “As you develop more special ways to test, you widen the gulf between regular employees and persons with disabilities,” she says. “Special becomes a negative word implying special treatment.” The accommodation of a person with a disability is reasonable treatment, Handy Pomerantz insists, not special treatment. “A working mom who’s a single parent will also need some accommodation,” she points out.
Handy Pomerantz does use special interview techniques when interviewing people with disabilities. She asks such standard questions as:
- What do you most enjoy doing in your job?
- What do you least like to do?
- What do you respect in a supervisor?
- What are your strengths?
- What are your goals?
- In what areas do you feel that you need to improve?
- How do you handle conflict at work?
However, it’s the way in which she listens that gives her information on the skills of people with disabilities. The program specialist gives the applicants every opportunity to talk about the disability in the context of successful coping strategies. She listens with the special skills of a person who knows disability from the inside. Handy Pomerantz is blind.
Occasionally, in an interview, the program specialist must ask such specific disability-related questions as, “What kind of accommodation would be helpful to you?” The person usually replies that he or she has had the disability under control for years.
Eiduson and Handy Pomerantz both say that they believe that applicants with disabilities should be candid with employers. For one thing, the employer who doesn’t know about an employee’s disability isn’t responsible for reasonable accommodation. Another reason for candor concerns medications. For example, when screening for drug abuse, such medication as that prescribed for epilepsy can trigger a positive drug-test result.
In addition to interviewing applicants with disabilities, Handy Pomerantz also serves as a consultant on reasonable accommodation to NME’s family of hospitals. For example, when an employee at a medical site developed macular degeneration—a deteriorating condition of the central portion of the retina—Handy Pomerantz found local support services. The employee now has a large-print computer screen with voice backup in the form of a speech synthesizer. After a couple of surgeries, the employee now works with great success, fulfilling all essential job functions. “We can demonstrate it,” Handy Pomerantz insists. “People who have all types of disabilities can work.”
Mitch Pomerantz knows this to be true as well. He has served as reasonable-accommodations officer in the Los Angeles City Personnel Department for years, hiring people with disabilities and developing accommodations for them. He agrees with Handy Pomerantz that learning what a person with a disability can do doesn’t require technology, just creativity on the part of the interviewer. He calls this behavioral interviewing. Its goal is to learn how someone would behave when faced with a particular challenge. “Suppose you’re interviewing a person with a visual disability for a job that requires providing information to the public,” Pomerantz explains. “Ask the person to describe ways to do the job successfully if someone came into the office when the computer was down and he or she didn’t have someone nearby who could answer the question right away. You’ll learn how creative the person is.”
Pomerantz disagrees with the technical-assistance section of the Americans with Disabilities Act that tells employers to rely on the person with the disability as the best source on equipment or software accommodations. “Not all persons with disabilities keep up with the latest developments in technology. It does a disservice to people with disabilities to make them the experts,” says Pomerantz.
Resources abound for accommodating people with disabilities.
Pomerantz suggests that employers look up other resources to learn what’s available for people with disabilities. One source is technology conferences for information on new products and prices.
The world of technological solutions to issues raised by employee disabilities is fascinating—and employees with disabilities aren’t the only ones who benefit from them. Pomerantz used one of the first talking calculators 15 years ago, an accommodation of his own blindness. Co-workers constantly were borrowing it, he reports, because it’s easier to use.
There are many software packages that help define essential job functions or translate selections of pictures into words in the form of memos and entire reports. The new software can solve many problems associated with hiring people with disabilities. Is all your job training narrated on videotape, making it difficult for you to hire someone with a hearing disability? There are several sources of open or closed captioning for existing videotapes. Is an armless person applying for a position as a computer programmer? Both Apple Computer and IBM have free product catalogs of readily available adaptive devices. Are you having difficulty determining the essential job functions of all the positions in your company? Two computer software packages, CrossWalk™ from Cascade Rehabilitation Counselling in Vancouver, Washington, and DescriptionsWrite Now! from the California Chamber of Commerce in Sacramento, help determine essential job functions and build job descriptions for thousands of job titles.
An important resource, the President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities, offers a compliance-and-referral hotline. Each state has local committees related to the President’s Committee, all offering different services. Callers to California’s Committee on the Employment of Disabled Persons, for example, can reach ABLEDATA, a data bank on reasonable accommodation, equipment for people with disabilities and background information on various disabling conditions. Various personnel-management associations also maintain referral services, such as the Association of Human Resources Professionals and the International Personnel Management Association, its public-sector counterpart.
In addition, each disability is represented by a diagnosis-specific information-and-advocacy organization, such as the Hypoglycemia Association or the Multiple Sclerosis Society. These organizations provide state-of-the-art knowledge of the condition they represent and its impact on work responsibilities.
Information regarding specific accommodations can be obtained from the national Job Accommodation Network, which operates out of the University of West Virginia. The Job Accommodation Network draws upon a data base of thousands of jobs that people with disabilities perform, and the accommodations that those disabilities require. An employer whose senior keypunch operator has just lost a hand, for example, can learn from the network what kinds of accommodations exist for one-handed keypunch operators in workplaces around the country.
Taking on an employee who has special needs doesn’t have to be an unsupported enterprise. An employer can find assistance everywhere. For example, the state Department of Rehabilitation provides job coaching at no charge to employers or employees. The job coach will work one-on-one with the employee, teaching the task and helping him or her interact with the supervisor, gradually easing off as the employee becomes comfortable with the task and the environment. Job coaches also help modify work practices if necessary, like helping a visually impaired employee label files in large print or in Braille.
During the 1990s, employers will have more workplace experience with people with disabilities than ever before. Dealing with the issue has become a necessary HR skill. One way to prepare an HR staff to handle disability issues is through a seminar called Windmills. This seminar helps broach the topic and enables people to face their fears about hiring people with disabilities. Used extensively for more than 10 years by Fortune 500 companies and small businesses alike, the curriculum is available from California’s Committee on the Employment of Disabled Persons.
In addition to offering resources for employers, this committee sponsors two major public-information conferences each year in April and October. Catherine Baird, executive director of the California committee, explains that disabilities in the work force aren’t “something for which we can look for a cure. This is our population, our employment pool.” She explains that although employers often feel overregulated and view the ADA as one more burdensome expectation, “We need to show them what’s in this for them.”
Realizing the benefits of hiring people with disabilities requires HR employees to keep current on issues regarding disabilities in the workplace. Pomerantz suggests developing a regular contact with someone at your state Department of Rehabilitation, or subscribing to the quarterly magazine published by the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.
Companies benefit when they employ people with disabilities.
What are the benefits to the company of hiring a person with a disability? Handy Pomerantz points out that “everybody talks about the feel-good element,” but she says that this attitude isn’t respectful of people with disabilities. Essentially it means, “Aren’t we wonderful? We hired this person with a disability.”
The real benefit of hiring people with disabilities comes from their high loyalty, which reduces turnover costs and has a positive impact on everyone’s morale. Winslow offers proof of this fact. Samsonite, which employs a number of workers who have disabilities, hasn’t had employee-retention problems anywhere near the level of many other firms that Winslow has seen.
Eiduson points out that many people mistakenly believe that people with disabilities cause high turnover. He says, “The incorrect assumption here is that nondisabled workers are trouble-free. Has that been your experience? Probably not.”
He adds that by leasing employees through an agency such as United Cerebral Palsy Association, “Employers don’t have to pay health benefits or workers’ compensation costs. In addition, if you do decide to hire a worker with a cognitive disability, you may be eligible to receive tax credits for doing so.” There are more tax breaks and more governmental support than most employers realize.
Are workers with disabilities more expensive to employ than nondisabled employees? Lynn Franzoi, vice president of benefits at Beverly Hills-based Fox, Inc., points out that a small percentage of any group’s employees incur 70% to 80% of the benefits costs, and they tend not to be people with disabilities. Franzoi postulates an employee, for example, “who smokes a lot, drinks a lot, is seriously overweight, eats a diet high in fats and doesn’t exercise. The quadruple bypass [this person may require] will cost approximately $60,000, not counting the follow-up care.” By contrast, employing a person in a wheelchair requires minimal expenses. “After you’ve installed the ramp and made the work space accessible, there are rarely other ongoing expenses.”
Franzoi stresses that cancer and premature-birth costs far exceed costs related to any disability, “even AIDS. An employee whose disability is AIDS, to use an example that employers often cite, will cost the same as the quadruple bypass—approximately $60,000—if the case is well-managed. The birth and stabilization of a premature baby can easily cost $250,000 to $1 million. A bone-marrow transplant for cancer, performed at UCLA where they manage the costs well, runs $135,000 to $200,000.” She lists the major costs to a company’s benefits plan as “the smoker, the abuser of alcohol or drugs, the woman who gives birth to a premature baby, the person with cancer.”
Despite all these facts, Pomerantz points out that, at present, a person with a disability must interview ten times more often than a nondisabled person to land a job. To change this, HR people must start by changing their own attitudes. United Cerebral Palsy Association’s Russell lives by the motto: STOP—see the other possibilities. They’re out there.
Learning to assess the contribution that employees with disabilities can make to your company can give you a competitive edge in drawing on this under-utilized labor pool in an increasingly competitive market. And there’s far more help available to you in achieving this goal than you may have realized.
Personnel Journal, September 1993, Vol. 72, No.9, pp. 131-142.