Room for Improvement

The struggle to advance disability inclusion in the workplace continues.

As Americans with disabilities continue to struggle to find employment — with some reluctant to even seek it for fear of being stigmatized — employers are being asked to do more to increase job opportunities and create more inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities.

[Above: The University of California, Berkeley campus]

In the U.S., the workforce participation of working-age people with disabilities is just 31.6 percent, and 15 percent of working-age people with disabilities are unemployed, according to 2012 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The remainder represents those who are not actively seeking employment.

Compared with workforce participation for working-age individuals without disabilities — which was 76.5 percent, with an 8 percent unemployment rate in 2012 — these figures reveal potential inequities in the workplace. However, many are hopeful that recent changes to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 will lead to improved employment for people with disabilities.

The most significant of these updates includes a 7 percent goal for hiring individuals with disabilities by federal contractors and subcontractors. The changes — meant to encourage employers to create inclusive environments in which employees feel comfortable enough to self-identify — are aimed at helping employers reach that goal.

Transitioning to the Workforce
Some, like disability and inclusion expert Deb Dagit, believe that the significant focus on disability inclusion in higher education can leave college graduates with disabilities ill-prepared for the transition into the workforce.

Deb Dagit
Deb Dagit

“It’s a significant percentage of the population that accesses disability services [at colleges], and in most cases, it’s done very well,” says Dagit, who served as chief diversity officer of pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. for 11 years before founding her own diversity consulting firm, Deb Dagit Diversity. “It makes the disconnect that much more jarring when [these students] leave higher education and enter the workforce — and there is often little, if any, information communicated regarding how to go about requesting and receiving an accommodation.

“Finding out how to access accommodations … and getting those met, and actually having a person in an office [with] an email address and a phone number, is very normative on almost every college campus.”

Dagit says her experience consulting for corporations and higher education institutions has revealed some stark differences between the two in regard to disability accommodations structures and processes.

“In corporate America, it is very rare that there’s a designated person you go to,” she says. “It’s supposed to just happen organically through the person you report to, and maybe with the help of someone in HR. And in most cases, neither the manager nor the HR person knows what to do, has had any experience, or feels compelled to do anything quickly.”

Similar Regulations
While it may appear that some colleges and universities have better accommodations processes in place — at least for students — many of the federal regulations that govern disability accommodation and nondiscrimination at companies also apply to higher education institutions.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 503, all employers,  including colleges and universities, are required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees and job candidates with disabilities. In addition to this requirement, higher education institutions must also provide accommodations inside the classroom to ensure equal opportunity for students with disabilities.

Both legislations protect against discrimination, and Section 503 requires federal contractors or subcontractors to take affirmative action to hire, retain, and promote qualified individuals with disabilities.

These regulations typically extend to colleges and universities, as many receive federal funding. However, the situation is much different when considering the student-university relationship, as opposed to the faculty-university one, according to Ken Matos, senior director of research for the Families and Work Institute — a nonprofit research organization that addresses the changing nature of work and family life.

“Employees work for the organizations,” Matos says. “Students … are actually the clients of the university, and so their relationship to the organization is somewhat different in that service to students is the goal of the university, whereas service to employees is often a means to the end of serving clients. So the basic thought process and interaction are different.”

Educational vs. Professional Achievement
But while the nature of the relationship differs, there are striking similarities when it comes to job and classroom duties. At the workplace level, employees must be able to perform the job as it is written, with or without an accommodation; at the university level, students must be able to complete all elements of a course, with or without an accommodation, without fundamental alterations being made to the course.

“[The laws] require that we provide timely and effective classroom accommodations when they don’t change the essential nature of the instructional program, and at no cost to the student,” says Paul Hippolitus, director of the Disabled Students’ Program at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. “Essential nature of the instructional program is equal to, in the employment context, essential job duties; you have to be able to perform those, with or without accommodations. [It’s the] same in higher education.

“Employers defend themselves with their position descriptions, and if they didn’t hire somebody or couldn’t accommodate them for an essential function, they’re absolutely protected and won’t be found at fault.”

Despite this similar focus on performance, regardless of whether a person receives an accommodation, college students tend to enjoy more flexibility when it comes to completing projects, or even an academic program. At UC Berkeley, Hippolitus says that students with certain learning or other disabilities are often given extra time to take tests or are allowed to take reduced course loads, thus receiving extra time to complete their degree.

According to Anne Hirsh, co-director of the Job Accommodation Network — a division of the U.S. Department of Labor that provides free technical assistance on job accommodations and the ADA —such accommodations are unheard of in the workplace.

Anne Hirsh, co-director of the Job Accommodation Network
Anne Hirsh, co-director of the Job Accommodation Network

“A common accommodation for a student, say, with a learning disability might be to give them time and a half to complete a test,” Hirsh says. “To take that to the employment side, that might be considered reducing a standard in terms of giving time and a half to complete a project.”

Driven by profits, companies are continually innovating in order to meet demand and stay competitive in an ever-evolving marketplace, whereas nonprofit higher education institutions are focused on educational attainment and career outcomes. In business, this revenue focus can often lead to some being left behind.

“You can take a class more than once in a university if you fail it [to] get a passing grade. You don’t have the same leeway in a corporation,” Dagit says. “There is a level of performance that gets higher and higher every year in most corporations, and it’s pass-fail. And if you fail, whether you have a disability or not, you’re out of there.”

A Specialized Unit
While the differences between higher education and the workplace may simply be due to the nature of both beasts, some believe colleges and universities have a leg up on companies.

With specialized knowledge and expertise provided by a disability services office or department, most colleges and universities have entire units dedicated to disability resources and providing accommodations.

At UC Berkeley, Hippolitus says Disabled Student Services (DSS) served more than 1,900 students in 2014; this figure includes people with chronic illnesses and psychiatric, learning, and more traditional disabilities — such as hearing or visual impairment — as well as temporary disabilities.

By law, schools are required only to provide classroom accommodations, such as offering note-taking assistance or extra time. However, UC Berkeley.— which, according to Dagit, is where students with disabilities go to have “all their wildest dreams met” — has gone beyond the norm to provide further assistance to these students.

With the help of a U.S. Department of Education TRIO grant, among others, Hippolitus and DSS staff are able to provide additional accommodations outside of the classroom. These include study aids, tutoring, and mobility and technology assistance.

According to Hippolitus, most colleges and universities are willing to go only as far as the law requires them. Yet, like any company or organization, institutions of higher education are also greatly limited by funding.

“They’re in financial models that have to be cost effective,” Hippolitus says. “So the question that gets asked is ‘what are we supposed to do,’ and that’s what we’ll pay for. So it’s not that they’re pushing back or trying to be mean or stingy; it’s that they’re being realistic about what they can afford to do and what’s required of them.”

Data show that providing accommodations to individuals with disabilities is rarely costly or difficult. The struggle comes prior to determining a proper accommodation, with getting people to self-identify.

Matos believes there are a couple of reasons why individuals with disabilities tend to not disclose the fact: fear of the stigma associated with having a disability and a lack of awareness that he or she actually has a disability.

Because the legal definition of a disability was expanded in 2014 when changes where made to Section 503, Matos says it now includes a lot of older people — for example, those who may have weaker eyesight.

“One thing that often happens is that people with disabilities will wait until there’s a problem [to self-identify] because they don’t want to be stigmatized, or there might be some social shame associated with their particular disability, and so they don’t want to say it until it’s absolutely necessary,” Matos says. “But by that time, it feels to the employer like they’re making an excuse. So the less a system requires someone to say ‘I have a disability’ to provide performance support, the better off [a company’s] going to be.”

Still other experts believe that disclosing a disability in the workplace can lead to lower expectations for that particular employee, thus leading him or her to experience lower job satisfaction. “It doesn’t feel good for people to think that you can no longer measure up,” says Dagit.

Yet, not disclosing a disability can cause an employee to not receive crucial accommodations and resources.

In a recent poll taken by the Families and Work Institute, national employers were asked if they would be willing to give employees task and workplace flexibility. More employers said “yes” when asked if they would allow flexibility for employees with disabilities; fewer said “yes” for employees overall.

“What I think that really points out is that people who don’t identify, or who don’t see themselves as [having] a disability, may miss out on some opportunities because the organization doesn’t think about offering them broadly,” Matos says. “But they recognize the importance of providing them within a reasonable accommodation framework.”

Some, like Matos, believe college students with disabilities have it easier when it comes to self-identifying.

According to Hippolitus, all UC Berkeley students are given the opportunity to self-identify not just once, but several times during the course of their academic careers. And while federal contractors and subcontractors are required to give all their employees the opportunity to self-identify at least once every five years, Dagit believes most companies could have better processes in place.

“If, from the moment you come into contact with every candidate, you give them the opportunity to ask for an accommodation if they need it — for the interview process, after they get the offer, during their onboarding, and periodically thereafter as part of open enrollment for benefits — that creates an environment where it’s more normative, like on a college campus,” Dagit says.

Universally Inclusive Workplaces
In spite of recent changes to Section 503, many experts recommend that employers go beyond federal requirements to ensure disability inclusion is not simply an afterthought. For instance, companies should be upfront about the process for requesting accommodations, Matos advises.

“Don’t just tell people [who] you think have a disability about reasonable accommodation processes.— tell everyone: ‘This is how we do reasonable accommodation. If at any point you need [one], this is how you access it,’” he says. “It norms the experience, and it makes it feel like this is just what we do as opposed to ‘because you’re special and have problems, we will do this for you.’”

Matos also urges companies to consider what he calls “universal design” when setting up workspaces, keeping people of the most limited abilities in mind.

“Universal design is really important when you’re assembling a workplace or you’re purchasing tools — so, for example, making sure that you don’t force everyone to work off of tiny laptops …  but making sure that everybody has a big screen to begin with,” he says. “You’re making sure that where you start is accessible and inclusive, as opposed to circling back around and making adjustments for individual people.

“From a business perspective, making those decisions early allows you to take advantage of economies of scale. Some of what seems expensive in reasonable accommodation is because [companies] are doing a lot of one-offs and inserting things into otherwise standardized processes.”

While the business case for disability inclusion in the workplace is strong.— according to U.S. Census Bureau data, nearly one in five people in the U.S. has a disability, and together, these people have a total disposable income of nearly $1 trillion — the U.S. still has a way to go toward improving the unemployment rate and job satisfaction of people with disabilities.

For Hippolitus, the key to achieving equity in the workplace begins with “expression by leadership” that disability inclusion is simply part of a company’s diversity program — which, he believes, will help make disability inclusion more of a priority.

“This is just as important as hiring women, minorities, or [people who are] LGBTQ,” he says. “Disability is part of diversity, and diversity is important … because it’s a bottom-line value.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Look for a follow-up article in the March issue of INSIGHT Into Diversity that will examine the role on-campus disability services offices play in preparing students with disabilities for successful careers.