Employer Outreach Critical to Disability Inclusion, Panelists Say

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By Katarina E. Klenner

July 30 — Progress has been made on behalf of individuals with disabilities in the workforce, but more effort is necessary to combat the continued presence and consequences of discrimination, federal agency officials and disability rights advocates said in commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act July 28 at a Capitol Hill event.

The gathering was hosted by Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), a ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Participants representing the federal government on the discussion panel were Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chair Jenny Yang (D), EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum (D), and Anne Hirsh, co-director of the Job Accommodation Network. The private sector was represented by Jill Houghton, executive director for the US Business Leadership Network, and Andrew Imparato, executive director of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities.

“There are more people with disabilities in the workforce today than at any point in the last 30 years,” Scott said. “Despite these strides toward equal opportunity, the unemployment rate is 11 percent for workers with disabilities,” which is more than double the national average for other workers, he said.

EEOC Chair Points to `Subtle' Discrimination 

Imparato, a disability rights lawyer and former senior counsel and disability policy director for now-retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), said surveys reveal “the vast majority of people with disabilities say that they would like to work, but many have given up looking for jobs because they're so discouraged.”

Scott added, “The labor force participation rate for workers with disabilities is around 20 percent, compared to 68 percent for other workers. The poverty rate for people with disabilities is nearly three times the rate for other individuals.”

“Americans with disabilities still face persistent workplace discrimination and other barriers to opportunity, so we still have a lot of work to do,” he said.

The EEOC's Yang agreed, saying, “We have come far as a nation, but we know we have not come far enough.”

“To truly advance equality, it is crucial that across our country we ensure that we are creating opportunities for all people,” she said.

Employment discrimination persists, and harassment “continues to plague far too many workplaces,” Yang said, noting that 30 percent of the discrimination charges filed with the EEOC allege harassment and that disability is the second most common basis.

Moreover, Yang said, “One of the greatest challenges facing us today is the evolution of discrimination from overt to more subtle forms, including implicit bias and stereotyping, which can be equally harmful yet hard to identify.”

“Our work at EEOC must go on as resolutely as ever,” Yang said.

EEOC Task Force Examining Harassment 

Rep. Hoyer, who helped guide the ADA and the 2008 ADA Amendments Act to passage, said the civil rights bill is “a step forward”—but not the realization of the full equality promised by the Constitution. “It is certainly no time to yield,” he asserted.

EEOC's Feldblum, who also played a leading role in drafting and negotiating the legislation, observed that today individuals with disabilities not only have rights but also “have greater expectations of what they will do with those rights.” Moreover, she said, the ADA, together with other laws, has changed the expectations of people around them.

“Rights and expectations work together. When rights are enforced, high expectations follow. High expectations ensure that people exercise their rights,” Feldblum stated.

Yang discussed the work of a select EEOC task force on harassment led by Feldblum and EEOC Commissioner Victoria Lipnic (R), which she said is “working to identify the underlying causes of harassment and develop innovative solutions to address them.”

Employers' Inclusion Efforts Highlighted

“Business is coming out of the woodwork to learn how to be an employer of choice,” USBLN's Houghton said. Companies “respond to their peers” and want to learn how to include people with disabilities in the workplace, supply chain and marketplace, she said. “By the way,” she said, “people with disabilities are also business owners.”

Emphasizing that disability inclusion is good for business, Houghton said, “Countless companies across the nation are recognizing the value of including people with disabilities side by side, earning the same pay with the same job expectations, held to the same standards of productivity and safety.”

She said the USBLN and the American Association of People with Disabilities have created the Disability Equality Index, a tool designed to help businesses promote disability inclusion and recognize that “what they're doing to include people with disabilities matters.”

In 2015, 19 out of 80 Fortune 1000 participating companies scored a 100, including Ameren Corp., AT&T Inc., Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., Capital One Financial Corp., Comcast-NBCUniversal, Ernst & Young LLP, Freddie Mac, JPMorgan, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Corp., Procter & Gamble, Sprint, Starbucks and TD Bank.

That score “doesn't mean they're perfect—but what it does mean is that these are companies that are committed to becoming employers of choice” and that they “want to find ways to include people with disabilities,” Houghton said.

Feldblum added, “Competitiveness among companies is what we should be striving for.”

Recommendations for Change

In discussing current initiatives, Imparato said he is on a bipartisan panel promoting overhaul of the Social Security Disability Insurance program. He urged a bipartisan approach not only to deal with the trust fund solvency issue but also to promote changes so the program can be modernized simultaneously.

“Let's not miss the opportunity to modernize the program so that more people with disabilities can participate in the labor force and so that we don't require young people with disabilities or people who have newly acquired disabilities to prove to the government that they can't work in order to get support from the government,” Imparato said.

“At AUCD, we've provided the idea that we should have an innovation agenda around Social Security that lets states experiment with new ways to determine who has a significant disability that doesn't require folks to prove that they can't work. Vocational rehabilitation has been doing that for years,” he said.

Costs, Benefits of Accommodation Weighed

Hirsh of JAN, a technical assistance service and research provider funded by the Department of Labor's Office of Disability and Employment Policy, addressed the costs and benefits of implementing accommodations for employers.

Based on results of employer surveys, Hirsh said, “Fifty-seven percent of the time, workplace accommodation costs them absolutely nothing.” Surveyed employers also reported benefits of accommodation, such as retention of valued employees, increased employee productivity and increased overall company morale, she added.

Citing a marked increase in contacts to JAN—more than 50,000 inquiries last year—she said employers “are engaged and are asking questions” and some are implementing best practices, such as educating and training the workforce, especially managerial and supervisory personnel on company accommodation practice and policy.

Although research shows there is not great concern among employers about the cost of accommodation, some employers report that they have implemented or have considered a companywide centralized accommodation fund to dissipate cost concerns of a manager or department head and to track what accommodations are being used and which ones are effective in their culture.

Reducing Stigma 

Responding to a request for suggestions on how to reduce the stigma associated with individuals with disabilities, Imparato said, “The fastest way that we're going to address stigma is by having people out with their disabilities in the workplace and in other environments.”

Imparato, who has been out at work with his bipolar disorder for his entire career, said, “Certainly I have experienced discrimination, but I've experienced more positives associated with being out than I have negatives.”

Feldblum, who has come out with her anxiety disorder, said, “I do believe there is an importance in coming out.” Because of stigma, “people at the top need to come out with their disabilities” to show the entire workforce “that they can come out without repercussions,” she added.

Houghton agreed, explaining self-identification campaigns and disability pride parades send a clear message to the current and future workforce that “inclusion matters—you count, we count.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Katarina E. Klenner in Washington at kklenner@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Bodell at hbodell@bna.com