Disabled, not unemployable

Don’t let disabilities stand in the way of hiring educated, experienced professionals.
1122 Editorialcontent Disabled Workforce Feat

Diversity and inclusion efforts may be helping to even the playing field for some professionals, but there’s at least one significant group of potential workers who are getting left out in the cold: workers with disabilities.

Numbers are often helpful for painting a picture in these kinds of situations, and no matter how you look at it, the picture they paint isn’t rosy.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19.1% of persons with a disability were employed in 2021, compared to 63.7% of persons without a disability. Wisconsin-specific numbers are only available from as recently as 2018, and they’re only marginally better. According to the 2018 Disability Status Report for Wisconsin, compiled by Cornell University, the employment rate of working-age people with disabilities in Wisconsin was 41.5%, while the employment rate of working-age people without disabilities in Wisconsin was 84.6%, representing a gap of 43.1 percentage points.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are 977,277 adults in Wisconsin who have a disability, or about 21% of the state’s population. While some of those individuals cannot or may not want to work, that still leaves hundreds of thousands of potential Wisconsin workers who remain unemployed or underemployed. It’s hard not to question whether their disabilities have played a part in that.

Despite being a possible answer to some of the labor woes that continue to plague many industries, there are numerous benefits to hiring people with disabilities. According to Pathways of Wisconsin Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to helping adults with physical and developmental disabilities, employers see, on average, a $28.69 return for every dollar invested in accommodations for employees with disabilities. The turnover rate for employees with disabilities is also just 8% compared to 45% for all other workers aged 21–64.

Further, customers with disabilities, their families, friends, and associates represent a $3 trillion market segment, notes Pathways. Additionally, 87% of customers say they would prefer to patronize businesses that hire employees with disabilities.

Unfortunately, there’s still a misconception regarding cognitive abilities for an individual with a disability. For example, according to Pathways, approximately 31% of adults with a disability have a college or associate degree compared to 33% of the adults without a disability.

People with disabilities are also an underemployed global population representing more than 1 billion, or 15%, of all people, according to the Disability Equality Index, a joint initiative of Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities.

Despite their prevalence, disabled workers still face considerable hurdles in finding and retaining employment. However, employers have numerous options available expand their employee pool to include more disabled professionals.

A firsthand account

Chantel 0009 Edit

Chantel Soumis

One wouldn’t know it just by looking at her that Chantel Soumis has a disability. Yet Soumis, the global marketing director for Indeavor, a Madison-based workforce management software firm, has battled chronic illness her entire life. However, it wasn’t until a severe relapse of multiple sclerosis in her early 20s that she was left with permanent physical challenges.

“Due to a string of unfortunate events, I was under an immense amount of mental stress that shut my immune system down, causing me to lose my ability to see, walk, and communicate effectively,” explains Soumis. “I lost feeling in my hands and feet, where my fingers could not feel the keys beneath them as I typed, and I couldn’t see what I was typing because my optic nerves were so damaged.”

Soumis says that walking also became a challenge because she was slow and developed a terrible gait. “It’s when you try to lift your leg, but it doesn’t respond, so it drags behind. People constantly asked, ‘What did you do to your leg?’ They had no idea it was a misfire in my brain.”

The damage from handfuls of lesions on Soumis’ brain and spine created other complications, such as absence seizures where she would lose track of time or conversation, seeming to “daze off” mid-conversation. She also developed auditory impacts, which are set off by noise and make her literally feel sick to her stomach and can trigger absence seizures to recur.

“Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a beautiful disaster because it impacts each patient differently and just as there is no cure, there is also no ability to forecast its path of destruction within each patient’s life,” notes Soumis. “MS is a mixture of all illnesses into one, and if you are lucky like me, you get to experience the full spectrum of symptoms. The treatment I am on requires me to work from the hospital twice every six months and triggered severe asthma as an additional side effect, which I also continue to manage.”

Needless to say, working with a disability has been an adventure for Soumis. “I would qualify to go on disability benefits, but it didn’t make sense to cut my career so short, and I am ravenous for success in my field of marketing, so I dusted myself off, grieved through the changes, and got back into my search for a new job.”

She notes applying for jobs with a disability can be an awful experience. “The Equal Employment Opportunity survey is so discriminatory; it is shocking that it is allowed to ask applicants to disclose such personal information. There is a way to prefer not to disclose this information, but that seems inauthentic to me, and a borderline lie.

“In fact, when I was job hunting, I performed something of an experiment,” Soumis continues. “I had applied to over 100 local jobs, and nobody called me back when I checked the box that disclosed my disability. Then I decided to reach out to some of my colleagues who were incredible local recruiters. Within a few weeks, I had two job offers on the table at the same time — completely avoiding that bias-filled box on the EEO survey.”

Soumis acknowledges that the world still is extremely inaccessible for people with disabilities. When trying to attend events in Madison, she realized how inaccessible downtown is, especially without easy access to business buildings, which she says force you to enter through a back door, and you feel more like a parcel being dropped off at a side entrance than a valued guest of an establishment.

Websites and apps are also very inaccessible for the visually impaired, but they are getting better. Soumis has a screen reader to help her on days when her vision is worse, but she runs into so many errors setting up ads, researching prospects, and even just placing an online order for groceries.

“I continue to live by the saying, ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’ and make it my mission to speak up when things are unjust,” says Soumis. “Need a screen reader to be faster? Ask. Do the bathroom doors open the wrong way making wheelchair access inaccessible? File a recommendation. I have learned that more often than not, bias and discrimination when disabilities are concerned are driven by ignorance, not hate. In fact, most people are willing to bend over backward and advocate on your behalf once a personal connection has been made and awareness is leveled.”

For some workers, disclosing their disability can be a difficult decision if they believe it may lead to discrimination. However, keeping a disability a secret from an employer isn’t always an option, nor is it even advisable.

“I had to disclose my medical conditions because I work remotely during treatment so often,” Soumis explains. “I also had an absence seizure at an event with a co-worker and required transport to the hospital. I look at these issues as minor blips. Some people get a head cold that knocks them out for a few days while I require a trip to the infusion center to deplete my B cells — and I even take work with me! It’s about the same level of commitment but my issues come with an attitude of gratitude and enjoyment for opportunities fueled by adversity, whereas a healthy individual with a cold might sulk and grieve about their health for a few days.

“If we can be open about our challenges, it can create a dialogue where we are more hopeful and stronger for the future, no matter the diagnoses that come our way,” she adds. “Having this dialogue created a safe space for me to request reasonable accommodations, such as a lifting desk, screen reader, extra monitors, and help to get to and from facilities.”

During her career journey, Soumis has learned that each employer is different — in some cases, dramatically different. “The culture, the executive team, the boss — they all differ per company. There are work environments operated by individuals who truly understand the importance of inclusion and accessibility but also environments where teams allow ignorance and ego to fuel bias and judgment,” she notes.

Yet if an individual feels confident in themselves and in their career, “they can get a feel for their environment and have the conversation if it feels right and makes sense logically,” she asserts. “However, if it is an issue as it relates to safety, such as you have a seizure condition and you want to inform your team how to react should something happen at work, those conversations must be had — after all, it is your life that is at risk. People want to help in situations, and it can be very traumatizing to them wanting to help and not know what is happening or how to react.”

Soumis offers some advice for employers looking to improve their efforts to recruit and retain employees with disabilities. The first step in any environment that promotes diversity and inclusion is to realize there is a lack thereof, she advises. “So many employers are ignorant of the needs of this extremely large group of professionals who would benefit from varied accommodations. Take open office concepts, for example. Are they trendy, affordable, and bring teams together? Yes. But if you are neurodiverse and noise is a trigger, this can be an extremely toxic work environment,” she states.

Another place where employers often go wrong, she adds, is in creating a safe space where employees feel seen, heard, and supported. Therefore, leadership must lead by example, be an open book, and take the time to discuss these topics without judgment, understanding first and foremost that it is the people behind each organization that keeps them in business. “If an employee feels that releasing information about being from a diverse community may threaten their job,” Soumis notes, “they certainly won’t be open about it. How can we build a more inclusive, accessible community if people are too afraid to speak up?”

As a reference for all managers and executives, Soumis recommends The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth by Amy Edmondson.

Embracing neurodiversity

Employers take note: There’s a talent-rich pool of applicants who want to work but aren’t being hired: individuals with autism and related disorders.

Individuals on the autism spectrum are bright, motivated, and want a chance to demonstrate the skills they have learned in college or other educational institutions. These individuals may not interview well, or may learn differently compared to their colleagues, and because of this their talents may be overlooked. Per the Autism Society, 85% of college-educated autistic adults are unemployed — 85% who bring knowledge, passion, and skills to contribute to a company, but can’t get past the first interview to show they can and will be employees who contribute to the success and missions of companies.

Progress has been made in hiring people with disabilities, but it remains slow. According to Disability Labor Force Statistics from the Department of Labor, there were modest gains in the unemployment rate of persons with disabilities when comparing 2020 numbers with 2021.

Organizations that proactively seek to hire candidates on the autism spectrum can find some unique benefits. For one, it increases positive perception of your brand. According to a national survey of consumer attitudes toward companies that hire people with disabilities, published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation:

  • 92% of consumers felt more favorable toward those brands that hire individuals with disabilities; and
  • 87% specifically agreed that they would prefer to give their business to companies that hire individuals with disabilities.

According to numerous other sources, people on the autistic spectrum tend to be more loyal and industrious compared to non-disabled workers.

David Fox Photographer Aic Autism Speaks Conference

David Kearon

David Kearon, director of adult services for Autism Speaks, says much of the activity in hiring so far has been in the tech sector, where those with autism often thrive in coding, programming, software testing, and analytics. However, he says it is important to create opportunities for those across the spectrum, not just for those who are less impacted.

“There are jobs available in all industries, which I think is important to note,” Kearon explains. “We are concerned that some may be pigeonholing people with autism into a very narrow career path in tech that simply is not going to work for most individuals on the spectrum.

“Like the population as a whole, only a small minority of people with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] would say that they enjoy or want to code software or run analytics all day,” Kearon continues. “The reasons why tech environments seem like such a good fit for people with autism — they tend to be predictable, systematic, and rule-based — also apply to many other occupations as well.”

For employers, a reevaluation of job descriptions may be necessary to capture more neurodiverse applicants.

“The behaviors of many people with autism may not fit perfectly to the common ideas of what makes a good employee,” says Kearon. “And the terms we include in almost every job description — strong communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, salesperson-type personalities, the ability to network — are criteria that can screen out people with autism, and they often have very little to do with the actual job requirements.”

Kearon says businesses should be more thoughtful and specific about job descriptions and be more willing to consider someone who doesn’t necessarily fit every part of the description. Shifting expectations during the interview process is also imperative.

“We know that the traditional job interview is a major barrier to employment for many autistic job seekers,” notes Kearon. “Assessing a person with autism in a traditional face-to-face interview is simply not a good way to assess his or her true abilities.

“Asking someone on the spectrum to sit across the table from someone, develop a friendly banter with a complete stranger, maintain eye contact (but not too much!), brag about himself (but not too much!), etc. is setting him up to fail in many cases,” Kearon says.

Kearon suggests that companies can benefit from using alternative screening and assessment methods, such as giving the candidate a sample job task or a trial work period.

“It’s made them more aware of the shortcomings in their traditional screening and interview processes. They’ve realized that they are missing very talented people by assessing candidates with traditional interviews, rather than by giving them a more applicable opportunity to show what they are capable of.

“On a larger scale, many employers tell us that including people with autism has improved the companies’ overall corporate cultures,” adds Kearon. “Learning how to most effectively manage people with autism has made them better managers overall, for all of their employees.”

On-the-job protections

A number of workplace protections at the federal and state level exist for people with disabilities, but it’s not always easy to prove when discrimination has occurred.

Wisconsin’s Fair Employment Law gives civil rights protections to qualified persons with disabilities. The law applies to virtually all private and public employers, regardless of the number of employees. Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), disability discrimination is also prohibited for employers having 15 or more employees. Both laws are designed to ensure equal opportunity in all aspects of employment.

The law protects persons with disabilities against discrimination in:

  • Recruitment and hiring;
  • Job assignments;
  • Pay;
  • Leave or benefits;
  • Promotion;
  • Licensing or union membership;
  • Training;
  • Lay-off and firing; and
  • Other employment-related actions.

The law also prohibits an employer from retaliating against applicants or employees who assert rights under the law. Harassment on the job because of a person’s disability is also prohibited.

The law protects individuals with disabilities who are qualified and can perform the essential functions of a job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.

Persons who believe they have been discriminated against because of a disability may file a complaint with the Equal Rights Division of the Wisconsin DWD within 300 days of knowing about the alleged discrimination. The division investigates complaints, helps parties settle cases, or, as necessary, orders remedies if discrimination is found.

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