Disabilities and diversity: a closer look

Kristy R. Crisp
Stormwater Public Educator
City of Gastonia, North Carolina

When we discuss diversity, what are the first issues that come to mind? Perhaps they are broad topics such as what is workforce diversity, what are the benefits of having a diverse workforce, or how do we achieve maximum benefits from diversity in our business strategies. Maybe our first thoughts concern a specific area of diversity, such as gender, ethnic backgrounds, or even generational differences in the workplace. Even a majority of the articles addressing this issue tend to focus on one of these topics. There is, however, one group that is commonly overlooked when we examine diversity on the job. This group is people with disabilities. We are less likely to connect the term "disability" with a group of potential employees than we are to associate it with the legal compliance standards of our businesses.

The fact is that, while the general trend in the United States is to diversify the workforce and while there is an increased focus on diversity from the federal government, people with disabilities still tend to be one of the most underemployed populations in our country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Adding to the issue is the fact that this population is on the rise. As Baby Boomers age but continue to work, we are seeing an increase in the number of employees with age-related disabilities. People with Parkinson's Disease, heart conditions, or other health issues commonly associated with growing older used to retire. However, due to advances in medicine and because of current economic conditions, many of these people are still on the job. Businesses are being forced to address the issue by accommodating the needs of these people and by finding ways to utilize their skills and expertise.

Certainly by now, the majority of us are familiar with the benefits of incorporating diversity into our workforce. Diversity fosters creativity and productivity among workers and can be a catalyst for many other positive business results. The population of disabled workers represents a large untapped labor pool that contains many skills and assets valuable to any employer. The term "diversity" is generally accepted to include race, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, sexual orientation, and disability. Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against a qualified person with disabilities in all aspects of employment from recruiting to termination and ensures that an employer make reasonable accommodations for an employee with a disability. Currently the Department of Labor has an extensive Customized Employment Program to connect prospective disabled employees to possible employers and to aid in finding a good career match for both parties.

With such an effort on the part of the federal government to ensure inclusion of this minority group, why do we still see reluctance in recruiting from this growing diverse and capable population? Education and understanding may be the answers to that question. Many employers have concerns that making required "reasonable accommodations" may be too costly or ineffective. These concerns have proven to be only misunderstandings. According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy, about half of needed accommodations for an employee with a disability can be made at no cost to the employer. Nearly forty percent of those who did have to spend money reported that the accommodation was a one-time, low-cost expense. For example, an employee suffering from Parkinson's Disease might need such modifications as a flexible work schedule, writing/computer aids, relocation of workspace to better accommodate needs, or written communication. This study showed that by embracing these reasonable accommodations, an employer could improve overall employee morale and also interactions between coworkers.

In addition, public perception of the term "disability" and the desire to be "politically correct" may hinder the open communication needed between a prospective disabled employee and an employeer. Employers may be reluctant to ask important questions, and potential employees may be afraid to discuss their disability openly. In order to counteract these problems, the Office of Disability Employment Policy provides etiquette guidelines that can help both employees and employers. The key component of these guidelines revolves around honesty. Employers should maintain equal standards for all employees. An employer should not make assumptions about the capabilities of a prospective disabled employee based on the disability. Employees, on the other hand, should also be honest about how their disability will or will not affect their work.

So, is the public works field ready to open its doors to full diversity, acknowledging the benefits that people with diabilities can provide? If not, we are limiting our pool of potential employees since one in ten working-age Americans (21-64) has some sort of disability. Moreover, this limitation would be unjustified. We are currently living in a time when technology and know-how have allowed a more flexible work environment, especially in the broad spectrum of public works careers. This flexibility should alleviate any fears we may have about recognizing, recruiting, and retaining employees with disabilities.

Kristy R. Crisp can be reached at (704) 869-1063 or kristyc@cityofgastonia.com.

Works Cited:

Bruyere, Susanne, Ph.D., CRC, SPHR. "Diversity and the ADA." 1996. Cornell University ILR School Employment and Disability Institute. 9 May 2006. http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/ped/hr_tips/article_1.cfm?b_id=9&h_id=1&view=true

"Customized Employment: Benefits Employee and Employer." May 2006. U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy. 9 May 2006. http://www.dol.gov/odep/categories/workforce/cust_emp.htm

"Disability Etiquette in the Workplace." 31 March 2006. Job Accommodation Network/U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employmenr Policy. 9 May 2006. http://www.jan.wvu.edu/media/employmentetifact.doc

"Job Accommodations for People with Parkinson's Disease." 31 March 2006. Job Accommodation Network/U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy. 9 May 2006. http://www.jan.wvu.edu/ media/employmentpdfact.doc

"Workplace Accomodations: Low Cost, High Impact." 31 March 2006. Job Accommodation Network/U. S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy. 9 May 2006. http://www.jan.wvu.edu/ media/LowCostHighImpact.pdf