Multi-Prong Approach to Changing the Culture of Self-Identifying as an IWD
April 29, 2014
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In this article I use the terms “individuals with a disability” (IWD - IWDs) or “persons with a disability” (PWD – PWDs) interchangeably.

Before we can expect individuals with a disability to openly communicate, through the self-identification process, their disability and possibility a need for an accommodation, we must show them that the information will not be viewed or used in a negative way. In order to do this, we must take a multi-prong approach of education and communication, both externally and internally, within the organization.

Prong One – Internal Education and Communication

I suggest that your internal efforts focus on: (1) changing employee’s perceptions of IWDs, (2) gaining commitment from the C-suite to change the culture towards one of inclusivity and to dedicate resources to reaching out to PWDs, and (3) communicating your desire to employ PWD. With the revisions to Section 503, federal contractors are required to conduct an annual utilization analysis to compare the representation of employees with disabilities in each affirmative action job group to the 7% utilization goal. This means that contractors can no longer ignore that disabled population as a hiring source.

Let’s assume for the time being that you are conducting outreach and are getting qualified disabled candidates, so how do you go about getting your managers to make offers? It is essential that you teach your managers about the qualities and competencies of IWDs instead of having them focus on their liabilities. In doing so, you need to change your manager’s perceptions of the skill level and benefits in which an IWD can bring to the organization and to the specific job in hand.

A study1 conducted in 2010 surveyed 130 human resources and line managers in the Midwest region of the U.S. to evaluate the demand-side factors related to the employment of people with disabilities. The results showed that human resources and hiring managers were not overly enthusiastic about people with disabilities as reliable and productive employees. The study further concluded that ADA and job accommodations training might improve these managers’ attitudes toward people with disabilities. Additionally, the study suggested that intervention at the senior management level should focus on changing company policies to include disability as part of the company’s diversity efforts.

Another insightful study titled Why Don’t Employers Hire and Retain Workers with Disabilities2, published in 2011, surveyed human resources professionals and supervisors working for employers known or reputed to be resistant to complying with the ADA’s employment provisions. Attendees of employer-requested ADA training sessions were asked to assess various possible reasons that employers in general might not hire, retain, or accommodate workers with disabilities and to rate strategies and policy changes that might make it more likely for employers to do so. The respondents cited that the principal barriers to employing workers with disabilities are lack of awareness of disability and accommodation issues, concern over costs, and fear of legal liability. With regard to strategies employers might use to increase hiring and retention, respondents identified increased training and centralized disability and accommodation expertise and mechanisms.

There have been other studies that have shown that managers refrain from truly considering disabled candidates because of a lack of knowledge or experience with people with disabilities or the misconception as to what the person is capable of doing. Managers need help in rethinking how the work can be completed and how jobs can be done in other ways, in order to accommodate a PWD. The fear of the unknown stops many people from fully considering qualified IWDs.

Internal training and dedicated resources are critical; however, those efforts by themselves will not necessarily help you employ PWD without an external effort. Even if you are successful with these efforts alone, the new employee with a disability will not necessarily feel comfortable self-identifying unless they feel that they are entering a welcoming environment. That is why it is so important to communicate your company’s desire to hire IWDs.

In a paper titled The road to inclusion – Integrating people with disabilities in the workplace3, the perception and lack of understanding issues do not end with hiring the IWD. Once a PWD is hired, there are other issues to work through with their new colleagues including self-disclosure, visible and invisible disabilities and dealing with attitudes and perceptions of colleagues. According to the paper, IWDs reported that they have been told not to disclose disabilities and to instead compete based on skills only because of the stigma attached to disabilities. Both job seekers and disabled persons who are already in the workforce sometimes refuse to self-identify because the organization’s definition of disability negates the accomplishments of the person and focuses solely on the disability.

If this is the perception of IWDs then the only way to change their opinion is the knowledge that the company’s views toward disabled persons are favorable. Communicating a commitment to hiring PWD is the best way to show a corporate culture of respect and inclusivity for IWDs.

Prong Two – External Education and Communication

What is the first thing a candidate does when they are looking for a job? Most candidates research open positions and organizations to determine what they may want to do (and are qualified for) and where they may want to work.

I did a Google search titled “employers that hire IWD” and “companies that hire the disabled” and the first links that popped up were resources for hiring PWDs. On page two of my search, I found a recruiting firm in the Puget Sound area that actually had a list of companies that had partnered with them to employ PWD in Northwest businesses. The list consisted of 54 organizations, both private and public, one of which was a dentist! If I were a PWD, I would definitely want to go to that dentist! It wasn’t until page four of my search that I found my second list of companies that employ IWD; however, it was dated 2011. On page 5, in 2013 the Daytona Beach News-Journal profiled a landscaping company that hired an IWD. On page 6, I discovered a wonderful YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug53UiaV2-c) which addresses employer’s concerns about hiring the disabled and then profiles managers from various companies who talk about their experiences in hiring disabled individuals. This is a must watch video.

Not giving up there, I continued in my search to no avail until page 13 where I found a list of companies in Arizona who hired PWD. That is where my search ended. What my research indicates is that companies are not making a concerted effort to communicate externally of their desire to hire IWD or if they are, they are not getting picked up by the Google search engine during a search by prospective applicants.

According to a National Survey of Consumer Attitudes towards Companies that Hire People with Disabilities4, 92% of the American public view companies that hire people with disabilities more favorably than those that do not. And, 87% of the public would prefer to give their business to companies that hire people with disabilities. People with disabilities and their network, as reported by the U.S. Census, represent $1 trillion dollars in discretionary spending.

So how can your company get noticed as an employer of choice for IWDs?
  1. Work toward developing an inclusive corporate culture.
  2. Ensure that your EEO-AA Policy is inclusive of IWDs and is posted on your career’s page of your website (now required).
  3. Encourage the creation of a disability employee resource group (ERG) that is open to anyone with a disability interest.
  4. Publicize in media/marketing material your disability diversity efforts and show pictures of disabled employees.
  5. Utilize public forums (LinkedIn, Facebook, associations, etc.) to communicate disability diversity efforts and endeavors. Also, use these forums to post job openings and make it clear that you encourage IWDs to apply.
  6. Join LinkedIn groups that target PWDs and conduct the same activities as identified in #5 above.
  7. Communicate on recruiting sites your interest in candidates with disabilities to apply.
  8. On recruiting sites with ratings, such as Glassdoor and Indeed, encourage all employees and particularly disabled employees to provide feedback on the organization. Positive ratings have a major influence on the perception the corporate culture and environment. On Glassdoor, in your company overview, write about the inclusive corporate culture and include pictures of disabled employees.
  9. Participate in job fairs for IWDs.
  10. Contact local media organizations to profile your diversity efforts.
In summary, if you want to increase the representation of IWDs and have them willingly self-identify, you need to show the disabled community that you have an inclusive culture that respects and values PWDs. In order to successfully accomplish this task, you need to recognize that this will not happen by default.

Developing a strategic internal and external communication and education plan can help you accomplish this goal. Acknowledge that your employees need support and guidance in knowing how to assess the skills and abilities of PWDs as well as understanding how jobs can be performed in more than one way in order to accommodate someone’s needs.

Wouldn’t you love to be the first company that shows up on a Google search being identified as an organization that values IWDs?

1. Chan, F., Strauser, D., Maher, P., Lee, E.-J., Jones, R., & Johnson, E. T. (2010) Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 20(4), 412-419.
2. H. Stephen Kaye, Lita H. Jans, Erica C. Jones (2011) Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation 21(4): 526–536
3. Summary of Deloitte’s Dialogue on diversity roundtables, July 2010
4. Gary N. Siperstein, Neil Romano, Amanda Mohler, Robin Parker, University of Massachusetts, Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation 22 (2005) 1-7 IOS