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Every day, millions of Americans grow up, go to school, get a degree, get a job, start a career, and start a family. They set goals to reach new levels of success for themselves and their family members. Think for a moment about how many such people are graduating from colleges and universities in America, chomping at the bit to get going with their lives after school. And think for a moment about the number of them who will experience either a serious accident or a debilitating illness in the next five, ten, and twenty years after graduation. Some of those accidents and illnesses will result in what is regarded as a disability under federal law. In fact, it is not unfathomable to forecast that one in ten college graduates will acquire a disability sometime in their adult life. Most will acquire it during their working lives.
People drive and ride in cars. Some ride motorcycles. Many more ride bicycles and skateboards. Many people ski, snowboard, surf, swim, paraglide, dive, waterski, sky dive – and engage in other "dangerous" activities such as walking across a street. Some clean out the gutters on their home, or put in a new dryer outlet, or trim trees on a ladder; some play soccer, softball, tennis, and other social sports on weekends. It's not always apparent when an activity is "risky," either. Michael Schumacher, famed Formula 1 superstar and seven-time F1 world champion, enjoyed superhuman successes as a racecar driver, and later fell over during a ski vacation and sustained a major brain injury. It's apparent that no one knows when it's their "time."
Many, many people acquire a disability as an adult – either through an illness or an injury. This includes many people who have finished schooling, often with advanced degrees.
I have met many. Among them:
An engineer with a master's degree was riding his motorcycle in the rain on the way to his new job. He lost control at a railroad track, crashed under a train, and lost both legs. Years later, he remains a successful civil engineer, designing and developing commercial and residential properties.
A dual-degreed physics and engineering professional with adult-onset scoliosis attained great career success at IBM. He later went on to lead a Top Secret military research project at a major research university.
A Marketing graduate hopped on the back of a friend's motorcycle for a quick trip to the store. As the motorcycle turned a corner, she was flung off and hit her head on a rock. Although she was wearing a helmet, she sustained "minor" brain damage that has resulted in extreme migraines ever since. She singlehandedly revolutionized one small company's marketing and sales strategy in spite of recurring episodes of acute pain.
A Senior Attorney with a decade of experience who is totally blind. He is currently a Program Manager in a high-visibility role with the State of Texas.
A Certified Public Accountant with HIV who has worked for a company for nearly a decade in various accounting and program management roles.
A Senior Systems Analyst with sleep apnea who is in such high demand with clients, he is able to choose which projects he wants to take on next.
A Director of a facility transition project with a hundred subordinates at a state agency. He was badly disfigured from a fire, yet is a highly successful manager of multi-million-dollar projects.
An Enterprise Architect with deafness who recently completed an IT system re-design project that resulted in over a billion dollars in government savings.
Every year our company, Peak Performers, hires hundreds of people like the ones I've described. Not three or four. Not even a dozen or two – but hundreds each year. Our contract to supply candidates for about 1,000 occupations in Texas state government means that we are constantly recruiting across a wide range of professional skill sets, every day. By law, at least 75% of our recruits must have an ADAAA-qualifying disability. Currently, our open job orders include 12 requests for financial and compliance auditors for federal grants. And this was just today's requests.
There are many thousands of people who have a disability and in-demand skills. Identifying them, however, is quite difficult. A couple of major reasons for this:
These are not easy hurdles to overcome, for they are rooted in trust – or mistrust. The candidate or employee does not feel that they can trust employers, and employers don't feel that they can trust the employee who has a disability. Both have good reason to mistrust.
Solving the trust barrier has to start with the employer. As employers, we must first trust qualified candidates who have a disability, and we must sincerely convey our trust through our actions with each individual. We must publish our commitment to provide employment opportunities to people who have a disability and we must repeatedly demonstrate that commitment. This is the only way I know of to earn that trust as an employer.
It is incumbent on us to learn how to find the qualified and motivated candidates. The ones we can trust. We've been at it at Peak Performers for over two decades, and it's still a challenge to qualify the very best workers who also happen to have an ADAAA condition. This might require challenging your entire team of nay-saying lawyers, and it certainly will require a new way of thinking and acting from the C-suite on down. This is not a suggestion to compromise performance expectations for anyone in your employ; doing so would undermine the entire effort. In fact, your workers with disabilities would be the first ones to object to a lowered expectation. If anything, expect more – expect a work environment where everyone is valued and where everyone's contributions are celebrated.
You can't find professionals who have disabilities in any one location or at one activity. They do not share a church, a neighborhood, or even a web site. And they do not usually sign up for Vocational Rehabilitation Services with the state. They are literally everywhere, but you have to deliberately look and ask. Yes, ask. The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) specifically provides a time and a manner in which companies who undertake disability-related Affirmative Action initiatives can lawfully ask a person if they have a disabling condition before making a hiring offer.
Yes, that is legal despite everything you have been told – but it is not without potential pitfalls. The greatest pitfall, of course, is to ask and then exclude from hiring or promotion those who say "yes." At Peak Performers, we ask everyone, but almost 100% of the time we hire people who answer "yes." (Of course, not all people who answer "yes" are qualified for the jobs we seek to fill)
A qualifying note: This is not some kind of Pollyanna, feel-good, social service, self-aggrandizement, beta idea. And it is not experimental. This business model has been proven over the span of 25+ years in multiple states to not only work, but to work profitably. As always, gauging the CHARACTER of each person you hire and promote is crucial to everyone's success. That, of course, is the hard part.
Charlie Graham is the Founder and CEO of Peak Performers, a Texas not-for-profit corporation founded in 1994 to set a new standard of employment for people who have disabilities. He is not a lawyer. Peak Performers is 100% funded from earned income as a recruiting and staffing firm for people who have disabilities. At present, 100% of their recruiting is for positions with State of Texas agencies. On any given day, they typically have about 300 contractors working on various assignments with the State of Texas. Each year, the state converts about 30% of Peak's contractors into permanent employees.