Savvy Companies Have Discovered an Often Overlooked Talent Pool—and Are Reaping the Benefits

Nov 11, 2015

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When Comcast NBC-Universal moved into its new building, Comcast Center, in 2007, the structure met the legal requirements for being accessible to disabled persons. But the company wanted a thumbs-up from Fred Maahs, senior director of community investment at Comcast, who is a paraplegic and a wheelchair user.

“Folks from administration and facilities asked me to do a walk-through,” Maahs says. “So we went from the first floor to the 61st floor, going through each area. I was really impressed with how much care and attention had been given to making sure that anybody with any kind of disability would be accommodated and feel welcome.”

Signed into law 25 years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964—prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Any private employer with at least 15 employees must abide by the ADA. But companies like Comcast NBCUniversal are pushing their efforts higher, to create not only a workplace but also an internal culture that truly levels the playing field for disabled workers, so they can focus on their talents and contributions.

In today’s tight labor market, the race for talent is on. Meanwhile, one in five Americans has a disability—some visible, some not—representing a significant talent pool. That pool will only grow as many baby boomers age into disability, and military veterans continue returning from active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“For us, it’s a business case, because this is a vastly underutilized part of the labor market,” says Brian Ronningen, director of diversity inclusion at 3M. “We need engineers and chemists—people who are really smart and have advanced degrees. So this is an opportunity to link up with people with disabilities who are searching for jobs.”

“The unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is more than double that of people who are not disabled, and we feel this is an untapped resource for 3M to pursue as we look to hire the best and the brightest from around the world,” adds Marlene McGrath, senior vice president of human resources. “The inclusive culture of 3M provides a great place for all employees to reach their full potential.”

Organizations that are welcoming disabled workers are certainly seeing the benefits. “Companies have found that people with disabilities have positive attributes that might not immediately come to mind,” says Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability. “It takes problem-solving skills, resilience, and sheer tenacity to navigate a world that isn’t necessarily built for you. If you’re navigating the streets of New York City with a wheelchair, you have to develop a lot of work-arounds. And employers are recognizing that the qualities that make good workers are not always physical strength or even cognitive capabilities, but problem-solving abilities.”

The experience and insights that employees with disabilities share also help companies better connect with a consumer base that has considerable purchasing power. “About 20 percent of the population has some sort of disability, and if you layer onto that folks who are directly impacted— caregivers, family members, friends— suddenly you’re at 50 percent of the population,” says Maahs. “We want to make sure that we’re providing our products and services to all people, and that we have a true representation of a cross-ability population.”

Tom Wlodkowski, vice president of accessibility at Comcast NBCUniversal, who is blind, leads the product team that worked on the company’s “talking guide,” which reads aloud channel names, show titles, and DVR commands for visually impaired television users. The company’s Abilities Network has conducted focus groups on offerings such as Xfinity Home, a home security an automation product. And employees with disabilities have influenced the company’s theme parks, like Universal Orlando Resort, where all attractions are wheelchair accessible, braille menus are available, and hotel rooms have roll-in showers.

Part of creating an inclusive environment is educating coworkers and leaders about people with disabilities. “We put together a panel a couple of years ago that had a blind individual, a woman with cerebral palsy, a bipolar individual, and others,” says Maria Arias, vice president of diversity & inclusion at Comcast. “These were champions from different organizations, and the message was loud and clear that whether you have an intellectual, mental, or physical disability, you can be productive.”

Attracting Top Talent

Experts say that companies hoping to bring more diversity into their workforce shouldn’t rely on the same old recruitment methods—and that certainly applies for disabled talent. “We had Harris Interactive do an employer poll in 2010, and the two most common means of hiring new employees were word of mouth and referral from current employees,” Glazer says. “Use those two methods of recruiting, and you’re guaranteed to have a workforce—generation after generation—that looks, acts, and talks the same.”

So companies like 3M are going where job candidates with disabilities might congregate. “We have a lot of campus relationships currently, but we’re seeking out additional relationships with schools that might have a larger segment of students with disabilities, or a program geared to people with disabilities,” Ronningen says.

He says it’s also important to break down any barriers of entry during the interview process. “We had a great a candidate who was working on a PhD in a specialized science,” says Ronningen. “So we lined up a couple of interpreters. And because an interpreter working in an interview that’s around an advanced science takes a little time, instead of a 30-minute interview, maybe it’s a 45-minute interview. That up-front prep and help made the day go smoothly.”

When hiring a person with a disability, it’s important to know what kind of accommodations he or she might need, if any. “I just needed some adjustments to my office, by moving a desk and some shelving,” says Maahs. “Someone with a vision impairment may need a screen reader. Someone who’s hard of hearing or deaf may need an amplification device to understand somebody on the phone a little better.”

Myths and Misperceptions

One of the greatest barriers that people with disabilities face in the job market is overcoming myths. Some organizations, for example, worry that accommodating disabled workers is prohibitively expensive, but that’s not the case. “We know that 75 percent of all accommodations cost less than $500,” Glazer says. Some cost nothing at all.

Another belief is that hiring people with disabilities will affect workers’ compensation rates. But those rates are based on a company’s workplace hazards and accident experience, not on whether workers have disabilities.

Meanwhile, some worry that workers with disabilities have higher absentee rates. “Statistically, people with a disability have a lower absentee rate than employees without a disability,” Maahs says. “They are also statistically more likely to stay with one company longer than other folks.”

Despite their generally solid work ethic, disabled workers don’t always feel supported at work. An employee survey conducted by Sirota Consulting showed wide gaps in engagement levels between people with and without disabilities on various measures, like skill-building opportunities and satisfaction with physical work conditions.

“A gap that’s 5 percent or larger is a call to action for business, and these engagement-level gaps were all in the double digits,” Glazer says. “So it’s clear that companies have a ways to go before people with disabilities feel like they can stand up and be counted.”

Smart Strategies

Glazer says that having a chief diversity officer who is explicitly charged with disability—and who has the ear of the CEO—is vital. “I was appointed to this position so that 3M can bring more attention to inclusion for people with disabilities,” says Ronningen, who has a disability. “I will have easy access to the CEO, and the board of directors is also interested in what we’re doing for people with Best Practices disabilities. We also have a disability awareness network that has an active membership that can bring issues or requests to light, and then I can bring that to the right executive group or part of 3M.”

Comcast NBCUniversal is educating its ranks, at every level, not only about people with disabilities but also about nuances within different cultures. “People of color over-index on disabilities, but there are cultures where the family takes care of that individual, as opposed to seeking out assistance,” Arias explains. “We do a lot of education so our recruiting managers and our business people are aware of the challenges.”

Just five years ago, few companies— even those with good diversity policies—included disability as a diversity segment, but that’s changing. Now forward-thinking organizations are eagerly recruiting people with disabilities and ensuring that, once they’re brought in, they can succeed. But as Arias points out, “For this to really be successful, awareness and inclusion have to occur day to day, one on one, all across the company.”

“Here we are, 25 years past the Americans with Disabilities Act, so lots of physical barriers have been removed,” Maahs says. “But myths still linger, so the biggest barrier that people with disabilities are faced with now are attitudinal barriers. Once we get past those barriers, we’ll win the day.”

Reprinted from Diversity Woman Magazine, Fall 2015.

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