People with disabilities–such as deafness, blindness, or conditions including autism and Asperger’s syndrome–comprise roughly 6 percent of the U.S. labor force, according to the most recent available data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And yet, those without disabilities are three times as likely to be employed.
Disability inclusion is an economic issue as much as it is a civil rights issue, argues Helena Berger, the President of the American Association of People with Disabilities, or AAPD. Her Washington, D.C.-based organization works to connect underrepresented candidates to steady employment. “Companies are starting to embrace ‘big D’ Diversity, realizing that to be successful, you have to hire people who understand your customers,” Berger tells Inc. Tens of thousands of customers in the U.S. use assistive technology or software–such as braille embossers and screen readers–in order to communicate on a daily basis.
She adds that people with disabilities often approach problems from a more creative standpoint, which could be a huge asset to your organization. “Having a disability may make you a better problem solver. You may be more innovative,” Berger says.
Steady, but slow progress.
Although people with disabilities are largely underrepresented in the tech community, new data suggests corporate attitudes are shifting. On Wednesday, the AAPD released its third-annual list of the “Best Places to Work for Disability Inclusion,” in partnership with the U.S. Business Leadership Network, ranking 110 businesses on factors such as accessibility and accommodations.
This year, the organization says there was a 32 percent increase in participation, as a record 68 companies achieved the highest possible ranking of 100. In 2017, these top workplaces included Microsoft, HP, and Starbucks. “These are all indicators that companies in the U.S. are starting to embrace disability inclusion,” Berger says.
Still, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley heavyweights–such as Google, Facebook, and Uber–did not appear on the AAPD and USBLN index. Berger tells Inc. that in some cases, companies applied and did not receive a high enough score to be included on the list.
Changing ways, not just views.
Creating a workplace that’s more inclusive does come with a set of challenges. According to the tenets of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers are not permitted to ask job applicants if they have a disability, or about the nature of one that is obvious. It’s also forbidden to ask applicants to answer medical questions or take a medical exam before extending the job offer.
The biggest challenge may well be unconscious bias. “There are myths and stereotypes around hiring someone with a disability, like the accommodation being costly, or fears that health insurance premiums could rise,” Berger says. To her point, although businesses may be required to install ramps or other amenities for workers, that cost is generally negligible. Only around 4 percent of companies that employ workers with disabilities say that accommodation has resulted in an ongoing annual cost to the company; meanwhile, the typical, one-time expenditure by employers hovers at $500, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network.
If you’re looking to boost diversity by hiring people with disabilities, a good place to start is by partnering with local advocacy groups to offer an internship program, suggests Berger. Google, for example, has a designated TechAbility program, which works with a non-profit agency to recruit and hire students with disabilities for full-time jobs. Meanwhile, Danish startup Specialisterne works with companies such as Microsoft and IBM to connect candidates on the autism spectrum with high-paying jobs in the tech sector.
“Employers aren’t hiring people with autism because they’re locked into a social paradigm, where everyone is looking for happy, mainstream employees who are good team players and good at promoting themselves,” said Thorkil Sonne, the founder of Specialisterne, in a previous interview with Inc. “There’s a total divide between talent and vacant jobs in the high-tech sector. Our mission is to remove that divide.”