People with disabilities have long been excluded from or underrepresented in the workforce based on low expectations and preconceived notions about their capabilities.
The signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 opened the doors for inclusion and employment for millions of people with disabilities, but a culture of stigma and misunderstanding has pervaded, especially when it comes to employment.
In the last decade, however, there has been a significant increase in conversation and activism concerning fair representation and opportunity for people with disabilities in the workforce. The working world is changing for the better as a result – and not just in terms of inclusion.
A 2018 study by Accenture in partnership with the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN reports that businesses that actively seek to employ people with disabilities outperform businesses that do not. Their revenues were 28% higher, net income was two times more, and profit margins were higher by 30%. Additionally, the Department of Labor found that employers who embraced disability saw a 90% increase in employee retention.
But the value that people with disabilities can bring to the workplace goes far beyond numbers.
"Hiring people with disabilities is a win for everyone involved," said Mary Dale Walters, senior vice president at Allsup. "Those with disabilities often look at business problems differently and bring innovative thinking to new products and customer service."
A vast untapped market
There is a striking disparity between the current American labor market and employment status of people with disabilities. According to the Accenture study, only 29% of Americans with a disability between the ages of 16 and 64 were employed, compared with 75% of Americans without a disability in the same age bracket.
If American companies were to actively participate in hiring people with disabilities, they would have access to a talent pool of more than 10.7 million people with diverse strengths, leadership styles and ways of thinking. The study also reports that the GDP could see a boost of nearly $25 billion if just 1% more people with disabilities joined the workforce.
Why companies are holding back
Many companies avoid targeting active inclusion of people with disabilities because they incorrectly assume that it will cost them money or require complex expertise – but multiple studies show that this is not the case.
"Many people will not hire out of ignorance and, many times, fear," said Alexandra Allred, CEO and disabilities advocate at 13 Able and adjunct professor at Tarleton State University.
Nearly 60% of accommodations cost nothing, while the rest average around $500 per person with a disability. Additionally, reports overwhelmingly show that the benefits of a diversely abled workforce vastly outweigh the costs. Being mindful of accommodation from the start can also help companies avoid extra costs: Consider adding accessibility features right away and making flexible working hours and diversity training part of your workplace culture.
Specific expertise or training is not required. Because everyone is an individual and has unique needs, the best way to serve any of your employees is simply to ask what they need from you, rather than assuming they'll need complex accommodations, and delivering on those needs to the best of your ability.
"Push down in your organization and reconsider outdated processes and thinking," said Walters. "Sometimes there's an unrecognized bias among hiring managers – their jobs will not be harder if they hire someone who works a little differently."
How to create an inclusive environment
The research by Accenture shows that companies that actively hire people with disabilities – identified in the study as "champions" – perform four key actions for hiring, retaining and advancing diverse talent:
1. Hire people with disabilities
2. Enable their employees to perform their job to their fullest abilities
3. Engage with awareness building, disability education programs and grassroots efforts for employees
4. Empower by offering mentor and mentee opportunities, implementing skill-building programs, and making space for diverse talent to hold roles at all levels
Many large corporations are taking the lead on championing diverse talent. Bank of America brought together a group of 300 people with intellectual disabilities to create a support services team that manages fulfillment and external clients; Microsoft created a hiring program specifically for people on the autism spectrum; Starbucks opened its first Signing Store in Washington, D.C.
Aside from the financial and economic gains, hiring people with disabilities has a positive effect on factors such as absenteeism and motivation. The Accenture study highlights six main areas of "inclusion incentives" – increased innovation, improved shareholder value, improved productivity, access to the supplier ecosystem, improved market share and enhanced reputation.
"Individuals with disabilities can bring innovative thinking, a unique perspective and other talents that can help businesses be more productive and competitive," said Walters.
Companies that focus on diverse hiring also see lower turnover, as their employees feel greater loyalty to the company and a positive connection to its business practices.
The future of diverse hiring
For companies to be truly successful in hiring a diverse workforce, they need to look at it as embracing the advantages of having a group of people with varying abilities, skills and intelligences, rather than compliance or perceived obligation.
"Diversity of all sorts is a good idea," said Philip LaDuke, global business principal consultant at ERM. "Not because of political correctness, but from a pragmatic business point of view."
To make your business more inclusive, start from the inside out, Walters said. "Make sure your company policies and culture are inclusive and disability-friendly. That means everything – employee handbooks, procedures and practices – should take into account that what many think of as a standard is not a standard for others."
People with disabilities stand to bring success, diversity and increased motivation to the workplace, but they are still fighting against decades of stigma and discrimination. More companies are seeing the benefits of fully inclusive hiring, but there is still a great deal of work to be done.
"Not utilizing talented individuals because they might need accommodations is a serious issue," said Diane Elizabeth, CEO of Skincare Ox. "Focus on what the person can do for the company."