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Helping Individuals with Disabilities in Employment Through Workplace Supports

by Darlene Unger, PhD

"Over half of adults 21-64 years of age who have a visual impairment (about two million individuals) are not working. And those adults with visual impairments who are working earn approximately 31% less than non-disabled workers." -- from McNeill, J.M. (2001)*.

Major legislative and philosophical forces during the past 30 years have attempted to enhance the participation of working-age Americans with disabilities in the competitive labor market. Federal laws designed to break down barriers to employment for individuals with disabilities span almost three decades, commencing in the early 1970s with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and, more recently, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999. The forces driving the passage of the legislation include: significant changes in thinking regarding the vocational rehabilitation and employment potential of Americans with disabilities; the civil rights movement; and the evolving role of employers in addressing disability in the workplace.

Looking Beyond the Laws
Despite progressive legislation, more favorable employer attitudes toward people with disabilities and advancements in rehabilitation and assistive technology, the unemployment rate remains at an unconscionably high level. Employment data on people with disabilities indicate that they do not participate in the labor force, nor do they benefit from participation to the same extent as their peers without disabilities. For example, a recent report indicated that only 34.6% of individuals with disabilities were employed, compared to 79.8% of those without disabilities (US Census Bureau, 1993). In an effort to increase and enhance employment outcomes, continued efforts must be directed to increasing employers' knowledge and utilization of a variety of workplace supports.

There are numerous types of workplace supports -- mediated by agencies, businesses, the government, and applicants or employees -- that have been successful in helping people with disabilities participate in the labor force (Wehman, 1998). The table on page 9 provides examples of workplace supports used to assist individuals with significant disabilities access and retain competitive employment.

Allaying Employers' Concerns
Prior to the passage of the ADA, there was much concern among the business community regarding the provision requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations for qualified applicants or employees with disabilities. Initial fears about the costs of implementing the ADA, and specifically about costs associated with providing reasonable accommodations, have not been substantiated.

Employers increasingly have demonstrated their capacity to provide supports. Several studies have described the types and costs of accommodations employers have implemented in the workplace to address the support needs of workers with disabilities (Blaser, 1999; Olson, Cioffi, Yovanoff, & Mank, 2001; Unger, 2002; SHRM/Cornell, 1999).

The consistent finding from multiple employer surveys has been that workers with disabilities rarely need expensive job modification or accommodations. In fact, for many employers, costs have proven to be extremely reasonable. According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), about one-half (52%) of the accommodations cost less than $500 to implement (JAN, 1995). Furthermore, smaller businesses -- which do not have extensive human resources personnel, disability management programs, employee benefit services or the resources available at larger companies -- also have demonstrated a willingness and capacity to provide workplace supports (Unger, 1999).

Findings from a more recent study involving human resource professionals and supervisors of employees with known disabilities from the same businesses document the capacity of employers to provide accommodations (Unger, 2001). Human resource professionals identified a variety of internal organizational resources available to assist with identifying and developing accommodations. The 255 participating supervisors also indicated that they were quite confident in providing accommodations to their workers with disabilities and most often relied on internal company resources to implement them.

Certainly, these findings can be viewed favorably as supervisors and coworkers often play instrumental roles in providing support to employees with disabilities, and show they are quite comfortable doing so. For instance, supervisors and coworkers have been identified as the primary providers of support in a number of areas, including learning how to do the job, completing regular job duties, being able to perform infrequent duties associated with the position, learning how to do something new at work, and taking lunch and other breaks (Unger, 1999).

However, the majority of businesses have very limited knowledge of the variety of workplace resources external to their organization, such as the Federal/state vocational rehabilitation programs or supported employment providers, which can assist in addressing the support needs of workers with disabilities. For many employers, rehabilitation counselors and employment specialists represent an underutilized resource in identifying potential applicants with disabilities and identifying and securing accommodations.

Collaboration is Key
In order to maximize existing employer supports, job seekers with disabilities and human resources personnel who assist them in obtaining and maintaining employment must be able to collaborate with employers to identify, assess, negotiate and modify accommodations in the workplace, while considering the abilities and preferences of the employee. The extent to which employment specialists or individuals with disabilities can work collaboratively with employers to recognize worksite accommodations and promote awareness about the variety of workplace supports available should help facilitate the integration of people with disabilities in our nation's labor force.

--Darlene Unger, PhD, PHR, Assistant Professor at the College and Graduate School of Education, Kent State University

Helping Individuals with Disabilities in Employment Through Workplace Supports by Darlene Unger reprinted from the Fall, 2002 issue of Envision with permission. Copyright 2002 Lighthouse International.

Lighthouse International Envision - A publication for parents and educators of children with impaired vision.


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