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Published October 2003

Tapping into a viable worker pool
Hiring people with disabilities is a win-win situation for employer, employee

By Ed Holen and Penny Jo Haney
Guest Editorial

Imagine if nearly 50 percent of the work force were unemployed. People, who are able to work, want to work and are actively seeking employment, simply cannot find jobs. Not even during the Great Depression did unemployment affect every other person who wanted to work. Yet few people think twice about this unemployment truth for people with disabilities.

Here in Washington, we have the highest employment rate in the nation for people with disabilities, at 50 percent. The national average is much closer to 70 percent unemployed. We can still do much better, and now is our chance.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. With a little effort and the right support, employers throughout Washington can benefit from hiring people with disabilities. Itís not only the right thing to do, itís the smart thing to do.

Employers who identify job opportunities within their organizations and become more accessible to people with disabilities benefit from a diversified work force; dedicated, productive and reliable employees; an enhanced appreciation from customers and co-workers; and lower turnover rates. Employment also helps people with disabilities become more self-sufficient and rely less on tax-supported government programs.

In Washington, hundreds of businesses have successfully diversified their work force and benefited from hiring people with disabilities.

In Everett, Quality Industrial Services, a company providing vocational and employment services for people with disabilities, has placed people in positions including security guards and dispatchers, and retail and customer service clerks. People have been placed in a variety of individualized jobs as well and in janitorial and landscaping crews that work throughout Snohomish, King and Skagit counties.

True Value hardware in Mountlake Terrace has long employed people with disabilities, and currently has three employees with disabilities working at the store. Northwest Loss Prevention, a security protection company in Lynnwood, currently employs guards and dispatchers with disabilities. Both companies have found that hiring people with disabilities has had a positive effect on the employees, co-workers and the business.

Here are some simple tips from employers that have been successful in hiring and retaining talented employees with disabilities.

  • Evaluate attitudes and stereotypes. Typically, people looking for jobs are not pitied or patronized or called heroes or labeled as brave for seeking employment. Yet for many people with a disability this is a regular occurrence. Often, the hardest barriers for people with disabilities to overcome are other peopleís attitudes and stereotypes. When hiring, give the person an opportunity to demonstrate his or her skills and abilities the same way you would any applicant or employee.
  • Get the facts and donít make assumptions. Myths or assumptions are also major barriers to employment. For example, some employers think their workersí compensation insurance will increase if they hire someone with a disability. Not true. Insurance rates are based solely on the hazards of the operation and the organizationís accident experience, not on whether workers have disabilities. Another frequent assumption is that people with disabilities do not have the needed training or education. In fact, many people have college degrees and/or extensive trade experience making them fully qualified.
  • Make sure your company is accessible. This means more than wide doors and ramps. It also means making sure job postings and promotion opportunities are accessible to people with disabilities. Forms and applications should be within reach and interview locations fully accessible. Most importantly, do not assume accessibility will create a financial hardship. Visit the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy (www.dol.gov/odep) and JobAccess (www.jobaccess.org) for success stories achieved inexpensively.
  • Write job descriptions for all positions. Written job descriptions identify essential job functions and help applicants identify jobs for which he or she would be qualified and enjoy.
  • Set standards and expectations. Many people believe individuals with disabilities receive special treatment and unfair advantages. Be fair and responsible, but do not lower standards or expectations simply because someone has a disability. The purpose of accommodations is to enhance an individualís ability to accomplish work tasks, not to lower expectations.
  • Make a company-wide commitment. The best employment success stories are always found in companies where the president, CEO or owner is publicly committed to hiring people with disabilities.
  • Get connected with people who can help. Several organizations throughout Washington can help business owners and human resource personnel recruit, interview, hire, train and retain skilled employees with disabilities. Contact the Washington State Developmental Disabilities Council (www.ddc.wa.gov) at 800-634-4473 or Rehabilitation Enterprises of Washington at 360-943-7654 or by e-mail to phaney@rewassociation.com.

Ed Holen is the executive director of the Washington State Developmental Disabilities Council. Penny Jo Haney is the executive director of Rehabilitation Enterprises of Washington.

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