As we approach the one year anniversary since the revised Section 503 disability regulation took effect, I sense a real shift in the contractor community’s attitude toward these changes. When the regulations first passed, contractors appeared overwhelmed and anxious. How would these regulations impact operations and how could they reasonably meet these new obligations? Comments ranged from burdensome to unrealistic. Some balked at the 7% utilization goal claiming it would be too hard to find quality candidates or too difficult to get their employees to self-identify. The tone and comments were not necessarily all negative, but people seemed resigned rather than supportive of the regulations’ intent – to bring more employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Outreach was nothing new, but the data analysis, goal setting, and outreach evaluation were game changers. No longer would a yearly email or letter to a community agency suffice. Contractors needed to demonstrate through quantitative and qualitative analysis that they were taking strides to reach out to this important demographic.
With significant unemployment rates for individuals with disabilities, something had to change. I know this firsthand because I have seen many unemployed individuals with disabilities walk through my employer’s doors. I work for Goodwill of Southeastern Wisconsin, Inc. Our primary focus is on providing training, employment, and supportive services for individuals with disabilities or other barriers to employment. Here is where things get interesting. Goodwill is also a federal contractor, which means we must meet the same affirmative action obligations as any other recipient of government dollars. So, while I knew that the new regulations would require system and form modifications, contract language changes, additional tracking and data analysis, and possibly more outreach, I felt enthusiastic, and even passionate, about these changes. I have seen firsthand how having a job changes lives. It is truly transformative. We serve individuals with all levels of education, ages, and experiences. As an added irony, disability does not discriminate. Think Leonardo da Vinci, Beethoven, George Washington, and Einstein. These great historical figures all had a disability.
When an individual with a disability walks through our doors, we customize our employment services and training to match employees with the right employer and vice versa. We build skills through on the job training to better prepare them for competitive employment. From there, our employment specialists work to match an individual’s skills and interests with the needs and expectations of an employer. One shining example of our customized training is our partnership with a local retailer’s employment disability initiative. Since 2012, Goodwill has been fortunate to work with 10 stores, training 65 externs, and helping 50 individuals secure employment. It’s amazing to watch confidence grow as new milestones are achieved. From a successful first day to that first paycheck, it all adds up. A job brings independence, self-sufficiency, and self-reliance. In turn, the employer gets a dedicated, productive, and talented worker.
As I circle back to the regulations and contractor obligations, it’s amazing what a year can bring. Are there still some naysayers that oppose the regulations? Yes. Are there some legal experts that would argue my viewpoints are simplistic, that I don’t fully understand the legal intricacies of the regulations? Perhaps, but I would challenge those individuals to look at the big picture. Have any of them seen a person who has battled to prove themselves, to fight daily against the stereotypes that follow you when you have a disability? Have they ever witnessed the powerful change that three words can bring – “You are hired.” I have and it is life changing.
I recently attended an affirmative action training event and found employers gradually changing their mindset. I saw companies more eager to begin partnering with agencies like Goodwill. Gone were the statements like, “How can we possibly do this?” Instead, I saw a new enthusiasm and recognition that individuals with disabilities bring value to the workplace. Many have begun to see that leveraging an individual’s unique talents can benefit both the employer and employee, and the job accommodations that many felt would be too costly or burdensome actually cost very little and are worth the effort. Instead of asking what they had to do, many were ready to learn more about attracting individuals with disabilities to their organizations. Here are a few suggestions.
For employers interested in learning more about the many benefits of hiring skilled workers with disabilities or more about the customized employment and training services offered by Goodwill, please contact Dan Depies at [email protected].