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Perhaps a physical or developmental disability affects someone you know personally. It could also be that you know someone with a disability in your professional life, if you work for a disability-forward company. Recent statistics point to the fact that one out of every five adults has a disability. Under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, a person is defined as having a disability if:

  • He or she has a physical or mental condition or impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, learning, or major bodily functions, such as functions of the immune system, cardiovascular system, or normal cell growth)
  • He or she has a history of a physical or mental condition or impairment (such as cancer that is in remission)
  • He or she is believed to have a physical or mental condition or impairment that is not minor and transitory

Disability-forward companies are those that have successfully integrated people with disabilities into their workplaces and business activities. Multiple studies have been published that highlight all of the various ways that individuals with disabilities can enhance and improve a workplace, such as increasing productivity and morale, improving employee retention and creating a more diverse culture, but statistics still show that a growing percentage of adults with disabilities do not have a paid job in the community.

The truth is that many misconceptions about hiring individuals with disabilities still exist in the business world. Some of those myths include:

  • Getting information on how to hire people with disabilities is time-consuming and complicated
  • Accommodating people with disabilities will adversely affect the bottom line
  • Individuals with disabilities do not have the right skills for business

Brass Light Gallery is a disability-forward company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin who says those myths are just not true. Operations Officer Jeff Perkins has been instrumental in incorporating individuals with disabilities into the company’s workforce for more than twenty years. In the 1990s when Brass Light Gallery was experiencing a high demand for general labor, they were approached by a local agency representing individuals with disabilities who were looking for employment. With the company having trouble filling many of their open positions, Perkins says it was an easy decision to hire someone with a disability to do production tasks in the factory. Small investments were made early on for physical accommodations and to help individuals acclimate. According to Perkins, “With the little bit of work that you have to do up front, you get someone who is loyal, conscientious, and hard working. It’s well worth it.”

Jennifer Sheehy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) also agrees that it’s worth it for businesses to hire individuals with disabilities. When asked what is the most important thing an employer can do to increase opportunities for individuals with disabilities, she replied: “That’s such a great question, and one I’m often asked in different variations by individual employers who want their company to become more disability inclusive. And my answer is always very simple: hire someone with a disability. Nothing is more effective than having people with disabilities as part of your team.”

bq lquoOur disability is part of us, certainly, but it’s not all of rquo

Sheehy noted that exposure to reality is the quickest way to shatter misconceptions. Because the reality is, people with disabilities are just that – people. She added, “Our disability is part of us, certainly, but it’s not all of us. Like all people, we are the sum of many parts.” When disabled employees join any organization, it becomes obvious pretty quickly to everyone that those with and without disabilities aren’t all that different. With that basic understanding, a culture of inclusion can grow.

Since 1993, Brass Light Gallery has had, at times, up to nine percent of their employees comprised of individuals with disabilities. The range of special needs they have worked with has spanned from people with significant physical limitations to the more unable to be seen developmental disabilities like autism.

Perkins clearly remembers the impact of the first individual they hired with a disability. He described the person as someone who was previously considered “unemployable”. He was wheelchair-bound and could not speak, but they were able to find him a job working on parts in the sheet metal fabrication department. The company installed a small ramp to help him reach his workspace and Perkins recalled that, “As soon as he started working, a lot of his limitations went away on their own.” He added that, “Miracles occur when someone has a purpose and feels needed.”

Despite concerns that it costs more to hire an individual with a disability because he or she might require an accommodation, research by the ODEP-funded Job Accommodation Network reveals that more than half of accommodations cost nothing at all. Examples of reasonable accommodations include making existing facilities accessible; job restructuring; part-time or modified work schedules; acquiring or modifying equipment; changing tests, training materials, or policies; providing qualified readers or interpreters; and reassignment to a vacant position.

Sheehy feels the root of this concern is likely the word accommodation itself. It’s legal in context and doesn’t really speak to what accommodations actually do, which is enhance productivity. “Like all people, those of us with disabilities need the right tools and work environments to do our jobs. And the reality is, we all use accommodations every day, whether we have disabilities or not. They’re what allow all of us to do our work.”

When Brass Light Gallery made their first addition of someone with a disability to the team, it wasn’t only good for the bottom line, it was also a boost for the rest of the staff. “It was huge for morale!” stated Perkins. “This person had been turned down many times in the past and was told he couldn’t do it. A few employees took him under their wing and once he built up his confidence, he became capable of much more.”

Since 1993, other individuals with disabilities have been extremely successful at the company completing a wide variety of tasks. With the evolution of the business over the years, most of the employees with disabilities currently work in support roles. However, that wasn’t always the case. Disabled employees have worked on the production floor, in the showroom, and handled detailed manufacturing tasks. Such was the case with one disabled individual who could not see, but yet was just as skilled (if not more so) at completing wiring tasks for lamps than her able-bodied counterparts.

While employers like Brass Light Gallery have made strides in furthering employment opportunities for disabled people with many different levels of skills and abilities, Sheehy still finds, “There are indeed differences in employment rates when you segment by types or categories of disabilities. And it won’t surprise many that the people who have the least opportunities to contribute to the workforce are people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

According to Sheehy, education and policy are both key in shifting society’s perception of individuals with disabilities. She observes that, “…low expectations and lack of understanding and exposure are really the root of the problem here.” Historically, people with significant disabilities have had limited access to opportunities for employment or only offered segregated employment. Sheehy added, “We haven’t provided them with the supports they need to contribute, and we haven’t allowed society to see that they can, in fact, do so. But this is an area where we are seeing improvement.”

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which was signed in 2014, states, for the first time ever, that competitive, integrated employment is the optimal outcome for people with disabilities. A requirement that students receive pre-transition services, as well as increased emphasis on the general workforce system meeting the needs of both youth and adults with disabilities, is also included. In addition to assisting the Employment and Training Administration (ETA) on WIOA implementation, ODEP currently manages an advisory committee mandated by law to advise the Secretary of Labor on ways to increase competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities. This committee’s report will be issued this fall.

As the nation’s largest minority, comprising approximately 41.2 million people of working age according to 2010 census data, people with disabilities are an essential voice to have at the table. Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has enabled more people with disabilities to obtain gainful employment than ever before, and today, young people with disabilities have a strong desire to join the business world. For many, inclusion remains the goal.

Sheehy notes that, “Disability inclusion in the workplace looks much like other types of diversity, whether related to race or ethnicity, or gender, or age. It results in innovation, productivity, and success, stemming from the fact that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”


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