Workplace Diversity: Creating Workplace Opportunities for People with Disabilities

By Tamara E. Holmes

Nearly one out of every five Americans has a disability, according to the 2000 Census. Of the approximately 70 percent of people with disabilities who are unemployed, two thirds of them would like to work, according to the National Organization on Disability and market research firm Harris Interactive. Luckily for them, a number of Boston-area companies and organizations are working to make that possible.

People with disabilities have a unique perspective that a smart employer can take advantage of, says Kathleen Petkauskos, president of the Resource Partnership, an organization based in Natick, Mass., that works to place people with disabilities in jobs.

"Customers also have disabilities," she says. "By employing people with disabilities, companies can learn about that target market."

The number of companies Petkauskos has seen taking an interest in disability-friendly practices has been steadily increasing over the past decade since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. The legislation, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, gives people with disabilities the right to equal employment opportunities.

"The passage of the [Americans with Disabilities Act] brought awareness to the employer community," says Petkauskos. "[Companies] had to make changes around their employment practices."

Two-Way Benefits

But as companies searched for ways to make their workplaces friendly to people with disabilities, many of them found that the workers weren't the only ones seeing direct benefits.

The Institute for Community Inclusion and Boston College Center for Work and Family held a series of focus groups with regional employers and came up with three main reasons employers seek to hire people with disabilities:
  • By hiring people with disabilities, companies fill a job vacancy.
  • People with disabilities add workplace diversity and show the company's commitment to the community.
A number of Massachusetts firms have taken their commitment to making the workplace friendly to people with disabilities to a higher level by joining the Massachusetts Business Leadership Network, a coalition of companies working to make sure the workforce includes people with disabilities.

Among the companies that are members of the Business Leadership Network are Citizens Bank, FleetBoston Financial, Harvard University, Massachusetts General and Progress Software.

Companies that are members of the network are "more than willing to share best practices and strategies" with each other, says the Resource Partnership's Petkauskos.

For example, the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass., a member company, ensures that the company retain employees who are disabled by having a committee meet six times each year that advises the company on how best to make the workplace more friendly to people with disabilities.

Among the initiatives the committee came up with were career fairs specifically targeting employees with disabilities and the evaluation of all school buildings to make sure they are accessible to people with disabilities.

Disability Support Groups

The University of Massachusetts isn't the only company that is addressing the needs of people with disabilities by forming support groups of some type.

According to Joe Good, a spokesman for financial services firm FleetBoston, the company has a Diversity Resource Group, or support group, for people with disabilities as well.

In fact, says Petkauskos, more and more companies are recognizing that people with disabilities have unique needs and are taking steps to create groups that address those needs.

Companies that are looking to make their policies more friendly to people with disabilities must start by making everyone in the company aware of the unique needs of people with disabilities "from the CEO, down," says Petkauskos.

Once a company is educated about those needs, it can go about making sure the building is wheelchair accessible, interview sites are easy for people with disabilities to get to, and emergency procedures take into account people who can't easily climb up and down stairs.

Sheila L. Fesko, research coordinator for the National Center on Workforce and Disability, an organization affiliated with the University of Massachusetts, says employers should also understand that people with disabilities have many of the same problems that other employees have.

"Managers should understand how people's skills match with the job and assign people based on their strengths," she says. Along those same lines, employers should look for opportunities to assign mentors to people with disabilities, just as they would assign mentors to other employees.

But at the same time, issues that are unique to people with disabilities should be handled confidentially without other employees being made privy to the details if they don't need to be.

Employers also should work to make sure the workplace's culture is friendly to people with disabilities by showing no tolerance for employees who discriminate against people with disabilities, according to Fesko.

But the most important thing, the Resource Partnership's Petkauskos says, is that companies be willing to learn what people with disabilities need.

"Companies don't have to already be disability-friendly to work [with us,]" she says. "We will work with them."

About the Author

Tamara Holmes is a freelance writer based in Largo, MD. She can be reached at

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diversity_champ said...

One of the most valuable management tools is the ability to focus on an individual's strengths and abilities, and not on his or her limitations. Like other employees, people with disabilities bring education, expertise and experience to your workplace; providing accommodation ensures that you and your organization benefit from that experience and expertise. Advertise your job openings in the disability community -- you may be surprised how many qualified people you'll find.

defense-counsel said...

People with disabilities make valuable contributions at work -- if they are given the opportunity to do so. In the past decade, the federal government and many state governments have passed laws that give people with disabilities this opportunity. The main federal law is called the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and it and similar state laws have changed the face of the American workforce by prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities and by requiring employers to accommodate the disabilities of employees -- and applicants -- when possible. The ADA and most state laws protect "qualified workers with disabilities." Thus, someone must be a qualified worker and must have a legally recognized disability to be protected by the ADA.

special-ED said...

Interacting with a disabled person in the workplace is no different from working with any other employee. Disabled people are just as capable of doing their job as you are, and they don't need to be treated differently because of their disability. You might be tempted to offer them extra assistance or give them extra time to finish projects, but this isn't necessary. While you should do whatever you can to accommodate disabled people in the workplace, you don't need to treat them as though they are less than human. They aren't.

Chalsie said...

This is great info to know.

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