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  Part Of The Team

No Matter What Your Position, You Have A Role In Ensuring That People With Disabilities Enter The Corporate Playing Field

By Dale Susan Brown


Copyright © 1995 Dale S. Brown


When I began a self-help group for people with learning disabilities in the late 1970s, I didn't know I was joining a civil rights movement. My goal was to follow the American tradition of organizing people with like challenges in order to pool resources.

But, once my disability was publicly disclosed, I ran into employment discrimination. My contract job was ending, but my employer refused to rehire me for a second job despite high-performance appraisals and a dearth of other applicants. My future boss looked me straight in the eye and said, "I cannot hire you. You have a learning disability."

What I didn't know, but gradually came to realize, was that all over the country, people with disabilities were organizing. We formed a movement that culminated in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, over a quarter century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. People with disabilities won the same rights held by women and people of color.  

At the same time, the labor force was changing. Corporations became more aware of the need to include women and members of minority groups in their ranks. But, it seemed that the diversity movement did not include disability. Why not?  


It may be a simple historic accident. Workforce 2000, Work and Workers for the 21st Century, a report released by the U.S. Department of Labor in June 1987, did not discuss people with disabilities. This his­toric document pointed out that "nonwhites, women, and immi­grants will make up more than five-sixths of the net additions to the work force between now and the year 2000, though they make up only half of it today."  

This report was used, particularly in personnel/human resource departments, to initiate and justify many diversity programs in private industry and government. Although a later report, Opportunity 2000, included substantive information about persons with a disability, the first report was better distributed and more highly publicized.  

Although employers became more aware of the profitability of sensitive uti­lization of women and minority workers, their programs did not always include people with disabilities. Many of us found this oversight frustrating. In fact, disability is part of diversity.   

Diversity managers who include peo­ple with disabilities in their programs will have a stronger basis for all of their activi­ties. Addressing the issue of reasonable accommodation and disability positively impacts the company's bottom line. According to Back to Work, a report from Northwestern National Life Insurance Company (1994), Finan­cial Accounting Statement 112, a recent accounting rule, requires that disabil­ity costs and other benefits given to inactive or former employees be reflected on their financial statements.  

And, a study described in the report of claims between 1987 and 1993 showed that bringing an employee with a disability back to the same job aver­aged the company a sav­ings of $96 for each dollar spent on rehabilitation. 

The more important issue, how­ever, is that surveys consistently show that people with disabilities want to work. In fact, in one widely quoted sta­tistic, a 1987 Harris Poll showed that two out of three employees with disabili­ties want to work. Of those, two out of three were not working.    


Since compliance with the ADA is a cor­poration's legal responsibility, what are the first steps for diversity managers who wish to add the disability issue to their diversity management program?  

1. EDUCATE YOURSELF. Before mov­ing ahead, study the issue. This step can be accomplished in several ways.  

  • Read books, watch videotapes, and attend community events involving people with disabilities. A good way to start is to contact disability-related orga­nizations for free literature. Also, visit their websites.
  • Contact your local governor's committee on employment of people with disabilities, independent living cen­ter, Easter Seals affiliate, or rehabilita­tion facility, and interview representa­tives for information. Many of these organizations want to work to help the private sector, and some offer free train­ing and literature.
  • Talk to people with disabilities in your company. If you know them, you can set up a time to discuss their needs. Advertise for volunteers for interviews. Or, to get more formal, set up a focus group of workers with disabilities in your company. Hewlett-Packard's corporate work force diversity committee, for example, sets up two focus groups per year to assess the needs of employees with disabilities.
  • CHECK WITH THESE ORGANIZATIONS. These are government-funded organizations that are eager to help you. . Except where indicated, all telephone numbers are both Voice and TDD (Telecommuni­cation Device for the Deaf).
    • Architectural and Transporta­tion Barriers Compliance Board: 800-872-2253
    • Equal Employment Opportu­nity Commission (EEOC): 800-669­4000 (Voice) or 800/669-3302 (TDD) .
    • National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research
    • (NIDRR) Regional Disability and Business Technical Assistance Cen­ters: 800-949-4232
    • Job Accommodation Network (JAN): 800- 526-7234
    • U.S. Department of Justice: 202/514-0301 (Voice) or 202-514­0383 (TDD).

  Picture of woman and man in a discussion

With the help of your employees with disabilities, set up a system for educating and sensitizing all levels of your work force on accommodation for people with disabilities.  

3. DEVELOP A PLAN. With the help of your employees with dis­abilities, set up a system for educating and sensitizing all levels of your work force on accommodation for people with disabilities. If you have a diversity training program, for example, make sure that employees with disabilities are included in the effort. Publicize com­pany progress in your company's newsletter and annual report.  

Examples of potential articles might include your company's development of a product designed for use by all people regard­less of ability, improvements in workplace accessibility, and any substantive action to improve the corporate environment for peo­ple with disabilities.

4. MAKE SURE THAT YOUR COMPANY IS IN COMPLIANCE WITH THE ADA. Your company is covered by the employment provisions of the ADA if you have 15 or more employees. The public accommodations section covers hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, auditoriums, retail establishments, laundromats, hospitals, public transportation terminals, museums, libraries, schools, health spas, and a host of other entities if "the operation of such entities affects commerce." 

Ensure, also, that your company is physically accessible, that application forms can be accessed by people who cannot read print, and that no discrimination is demonstrated in the hiring, promo­tion, or training of workers. If your company has not yet started a compliance program, you can take the lead. Encourage your com­pany to go beyond the legal mandates and be sensitive to the "human" needs of people with disabilities.  

Prior to the passage of the ADA, frustrated people with disabili­ties sometimes stated, "The civil rights movement began because black people didn't want to sit in the back of the bus. People with dis­abilities are trying to get on the bus!"  

Prior to the passage of the ADA, four people in wheelchairs held a sit-in because they were refused service in a restaurant. When the police came to arrest them, one of the men said, "You can't arrest me. I'm black." The police officer replied, "Yes, I can. You're in a wheelchair."  

Today, this situation could not happen. Nor can an employer legally look me in the eye and say, "I will not hire you. You have a learning disability." People with disabilities, like all people, can make powerful contributions to your company's profits and ability to serve your customers. No matter what your position in the com­pany, you play a key role in ensuring that people with disabilities become part of the team.  

Picture of Dale S. Brown

Dale S. Brown is a frequent contributer to the International Center on Disability Resources on the Internet. She is on our Advisory Board. The author of five books and the winner of many awards, she has been a lifelong advocate of people with disabilities.



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