I am a little surprised that I still find myself spending a majority of my time educating people on the problem I set out to solve when I started my company, Opportunity Works (we help people with disability in the workplace. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since I’ve only been at it for a number of months, not years (yet). It has occurred to me that shedding some organized, well-documented light on the problem here, might help. So here goes.

President George H. W. Bush signs the American...

President George H. W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 into law. Pictured (left to right): Evan Kemp, Rev Harold Wilke, Pres. Bush, Sandra Parrino, Justin Dart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Opportunity Works was founded in an attempt to improve employment of people with disabilities and help people who have a disability in the workplace fit in. We are a for-profit staffing service company, focusing our recruiting on organizations providing support to people with disabilities. We did this to solve the problem of high unemployment rates of people with disabilities, with marginal improvements since the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. So, why is it that there has been so little improvement?

It would be reasonable to presume that companies would be reluctant to hire employees that would cost them more than other options. This is reasonable as we have seen trends to move manufacturing and call center operations to other countries. Within the country, companies have gone radical and taken measures to do things such as setting policies not to hire smokers or overweight people. Right? So, surely this is part of the problem. The perception that people with disability in the workplace cost more than your average Joe.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, “Leading Practices on Disability Inclusion”, hiring people with disabilities is good for the bottom-line. The report has case studies from companies such as 3M, PepsiCo, Merck and AT & T. All companies in the report cite the benefits and importance of hiring people with disabilities. But, it does not clearly address the costs versus benefits of hiring people with disabilities.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Job Accommodations Network annual report, “Workplace Accommodations: Low Cost, High Impact” which concludes “workplace accommodations not only are low cost, but also positively impact the workplace in many ways.” This report found that more than half of requested workplace accommodation cost absolutely nothing for the companies to implement. Some examples of these accommodations include scheduling flexibility, allowances in dress code rules or allowing somebody to sit (or stand) when other positioning is customary.

Employers reported that providing accommodations resulted in such benefits as retaining valuable employees, improving productivity and morale, reducing workers’ compensation and training costs, and improving company diversity. The report also found that other accommodations had an average cost of $500. How much is that cost compared to the cost of employee turnover? It is clearly much less expensive to provide the accommodation than to have an employee leave. But what about concerns about that applicant that is not yet an employee?

I move on now to a report from DePaul University, “Exploring the Bottom Line: A Study of the Costs and Benefits of Workers with Disability in the workplace ”. This study is fascinating and I would sure like to see something similar on a larger scale. This paper focuses on 5 issues:  1) Importance of Disability Employment Agencies & Disability Advocates 2) Persistence of Manager Bias 3) Lack of Promotion  4) Costs Associated with Workers with Disabilities and 5) Benefits Associated with Workers with Disabilities.

I have expressed my own opinions of the importance of disability employment agencies. What I have seen in my community though is that the agencies struggle in making placements. My interpretation of this struggle was that the employees within the agencies were stretched too thin. I also had concerns that there were communication challenges between social service agencies and businesses. I thought that forming Opportunity Works could bridge the gaps I observed. Am I on to something?

I think so. The study out of DePaul University found company representatives stated that people with disabilities did not apply with them off the street, but through disability service agencies. It also stated that company representatives “expressed concern with some agencies for not remaining in contact. They stressed that ongoing communication was key to successful partnerships between employers and disability employment agencies.”

What did this study find in looking at the cost/benefit analysis? The findings were, like the Job Accommodations Network report, that costs of accommodating employees were minimal. Despite these findings there were still perceptions that costs would be high. So, now the good stuff.