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Hire the person, not the preconception

Wendy Wagner
Inside Business
Monday November 8, 1999

Reprinted with permission

Since this is my first column for INSIDE BUSINESS, I really wanted it to be especially interesting, compelling and fun to read. So I wrote one version about my chosen topic - what to consider when deciding to hire people with disabilities and why people with disabilities are an important labor source that's often overlooked.

But then the computer crashed, taking my prose with it. (Note to self: Automatic backup is a function to put to work immediately.) Great way to end a long Monday. My sense of humor was not immediately available. Fortunately, my dog does not repeat what he hears at home to the neighbors.

Faced with rewriting the column, I thought about simply trying to recreate the first version. But I think it was probably a little dry. So I've decided to begin this attempt with a game I learned from disability consultant Susan O'Mara of Virginia Commonwealth University's Rehabilitation, Research and Training Center.

O'Mara was one of the featured speakers at the Virginia Business Leaders Network conference held Oct. 25 at Crestar Center in downtown Richmond.

The conference, "Making Your Corporate Ladder Accessible: Put Ability to Work," was the first event of Workforce Development Week and was the second conference held by the VBLN in 18 months.

Crestar's Meg O'Connell, who established the bank's groundbreaking program for hiring qualified people with disabilities and an extensive in-house training program for managers and supervisors, coordinated the event.

Back to O'Mara's game. It's called "Pick a Disability," and it goes like this:

Pretend you have to wake up tomorrow and be disabled. What disability, physical or mental, would you choose if you had to pick one? Write down three you would choose in order, from most to least desirable. Then write down why you chose as you did.

When we tried the game, every person in the room had different perceptions about each of the disabilities, with positive things to say about some and negative things about others.

"The reactions that we have can influence the decisions that we make about employment for people with disabilities," O'Mara pointed out. "What you think you know can often be more dangerous than what you don't know."

Crestar's Jim Kelley, executive vice president of human resources, related stories of the 40-plus employees with disabilities the company has hired and how exceptionally they perform their tasks.

He said it costs the company $50 to modify a workstation to accommodate a quadriplegic employee. "Now we're benefiting from that individual's skill and expertise," Kelley said.

And one of the speakers, Claiborne Haughton Jr., principal director for civilian equal employment opportunity for the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, had the entire audience charged.

"Don't read a book by its cover when it comes to the abilities of people with so-called disabilities," Haughton said. "People with disabilities can enrich all our lives and can do so much more when given the opportunity."

Now think about your employees and what you do each day in the course of business. Say you have a position you need filled. You have three candidates, each with the appropriate education, skills and experience. But each person has a physical or mental disability.

How do you choose between them?

Do you hire the person who uses the wheelchair because it's a desk job and avoid the person with blindness because you don't want the guide dog around?

Are you afraid it will cost too much to provide reasonable accommodations, as required by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, to hire the candidate who has cerebral palsy and needs special equipment?

Or do you look at each person's skills? If each can do the job, do you choose the person who has a bit more experience, as you might when choosing between any other set of candidates?

If you already have employees with disabilities, think for a moment. Do you consider them equally for promotions and advancements? Are they allowed to grow and change in their jobs, or are they limited because the company assumes that they already do all they can?

There is a variety of resources for employers in Virginia who need more information about hiring employees with disabilities. The Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services is one of many state agencies with programs designed to encourage the hiring of people with disabilities.

VDRS will help you find qualified applicants, examine your business to determine if modifications are needed to accommodate an employee with a disability, and even help determine if your business is eligible for financial assistance through any of the dozens of programs available to encourage employment for people with disabilities.

The number to reach the agency for assistance is (800) 552-5019.

Many businesses say they can't find qualified applicants. O'Mara said that's because they may not be considering people with disabilities.

"We need to realize that they also have skills, education and work experience. If we're hiring based on deficits, that's not effective hiring."

INSIDE BUSINESS Staff Writer Wendy Wagner reports on banking and finance, health care and Henrico and Hanover counties. She can be reached at 358-5500, Ext. 314, or by e-mail at

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