After not working for eight years because of a visual disability, Samantha Reeves speaks with palpable pride of the day in April when she officially became an Oklahoma state employee.
“It’s changed my life,'' says Reeves, 30, who secured a position with the Department of Rehabilitation's Career Planning Center through Galt, a foundation that helps people with disabilities find jobs.
"The only time I ever got out of my house was to go to the doctor, and you can’t imagine what that does to someone’s mood,'' she says. Working "provided the opportunity to let my strengths actually shine so people get to know the real me, and not just see my disability.’’
A low unemployment rate, heightened advocacy by activists and a study that highlights how more inclusion can boost the bottom line have made hiring of people with disabilities the next front in the effort to diversify workplaces in the United States.
Institutional investors, including 15 state treasurers, have called on businesses whose shares they own to make hiring workers with disabilities a priority. Together, they represent over $2.1 trillion in assets.
And whether they're posting break room signs in braille, or tweaking their interview processes to accommodate those on the autism spectrum, companies like Voya, Microsoft and Walgreens are among the businesses taking steps to make sure they're recruiting and supporting employees with physical, emotional and neurological challenges.
"There is momentum,'' says Crosby Cromwell, former chief marketing officer for Galt, which has helped more than 25,000 people with disabilities find employment. "Disability historically has been an overlooked talent pool and so ... because of the unemployment rate, because of the strengthening of the voice in the disability community, it's the right time to introduce disability (inclusion) to corporate America.''
A study, released in October 2018 and compiled by Accenture in partnership with the organization Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), determined that the United States' GDP could increase up to $25 billion if the number of employed Americans with physical, neurological or emotional challenges increased by 1%. A 5-year-old Disability Equality Index (DEI), which gives businesses benchmarks to measure their progress, now includes 180 companies.
Some businesses have already seen benefits to their bottom lines. The report found that 45 businesses seen as leaders in employing workers with disabilities had average revenue over four years that was 28% higher than corporate peers, from 2015 to 2018. Meanwhile, their average profit margins during that time period were 30% higher.
"The conversation is absolutely evolving from philanthropic and charitable to one that is foundational to the business,'' says Laurie Henneborn, research managing director for Accenture, which has made inclusion a focal point. In 2017, 4.5% of Accenture's U.S. workforce self-identified as having a disability.
Yet at a time when the jobless rate is just above a 50-year low of 3.7%, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities is nearly twice that, at 6.3%. Only 19.3% of people with disabilities 16 and over were employed as of May 2019, compared with 66.3% in that age range who were not disabled, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) which passed in 1990, banned discrimination against that population and was successful in making accommodations like sidewalk curb cuts and ramps commonplace. But "it has not achieved its goal of job opportunities and equal opportunity in the workforce for people with disabilities who are able and willing to work,'' says Ted Kennedy Jr., a disability rights attorney and chairman of the AAPD's board. "That's what we're trying to address.''
Disabilities not always in plain sight
Many may think of a disability as a challenge that is visible and physical – a woman who uses a wheelchair, a man who has cerebral palsy – but disabilities are far more wide-ranging.
The ADA defines disability "as a physical or mental impairment'' that previously or currently limits at least one primary life activity significantly. Advocates emphasize that such challenges can include "invisible'' health issues like anxiety, diabetes, depression or lupus.
One in four U.S. adults – 61 million people – have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And among those who are employed, 62% say their disabilities are "invisible,'' meaning colleagues don't realize they have a challenge unless they're told, according to a 2017 report from the Center for Talent Innovation.
Latoya Berry, 33, says she has dealt with "crippling anxiety'' during her work life, and she says that in the past she believes her needing to take a health-related leave or go to the doctor hindered her ability to progress.
Galt helped her find her current temporary position as a human resource administrative assistant. And Berry says having a supportive employer has made a big difference.
"I feel like the employer I'm with now is very understanding,'' says Berry, who lives in Oklahoma City. "I’ve only had one episode since I've worked here, and I think it has a lot to do with them ... having the compassion.''
Reeves has an eye condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, which dramatically limits her field of vision. "It has to be right in front of my eyes for me to see it,'' she says, adding that she can't see at night, and her lack of depth perception means she needs to use a cane when she walks up and down stairs.
Diagnosed with the condition when she was 21, Reeves was working at a call center when her vision deteriorated to the point she needed to go on disability. "I spent eight years on disability thinking I could not go to work, that no one would hire someone who had a visual disability,'' she says.
Reeves says some employers might believe an employee with a physical or health challenge just won't be up to the job.
But "just because I can’t do it the same way others do doesn't mean I can’t do it,'' she says. "We can still accomplish things. We just may not accomplish it the same way.''
Reeve's computer has a larger-than-typical screen, and instead of having the more common white background with black letters, the background is black with white letters, making it easier for her to see.
Reeve's manager also found her a lamp that magnifies documents and even ordered more brightly-colored post-its to help Reeves with tasks.
Such accommodations may make some companies fear that it will be too costly to support employees who have special needs. But, Kennedy says, "we know most accommodations cost little or nothing.''
If there are costs, Kennedy says, tax credits can cover them. And organizations like the Galt Foundation will pay for any aids that employees it places may need.
Tech to meet diverse needs
At a time when Amazon's "Alexa'' can switch on a home's lights and Netflix provides tracks to narrate what's happening on the screen, employees with disabilities who both viscerally understand the need for such innovations and help to create them can fuel a company's success, business leaders say.
The U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy has said people with disabilities are the third-largest market segment in the country, according to an April 2018 report from the American Institutes for Research. The report added that the discretionary income of people with disabilities who are working age is $21 billion.
The insights of employees with disabilities have also helped create technology that is more useful for the population as a whole.
Microsoft has a broker who actively pursues potential employees who have disabilities, like being on the autism spectrum, with the help of various individuals and organizations. And because traditional interviewing processes may not be the best gauge of what people on the autism spectrum have to offer, the tech giant has an academy for those with that condition which invites potential employees to visit the company campus. Roughly half of those who've participated have been hired so far, and the company says it wants to hire as many candidates as possible.
"We’re very very adamant we're not just hiring you because of your skills,'' says Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer, who is deaf and has a sign language interpreter. "We’re hiring you because you bring unique experience and talents to the company that could help us be better.’’
Microsoft's efforts at inclusion are evident in other ways as well. It makes sure labels are in braille so visually impaired workers can tell what beverage they're grabbing. And the company's "hackathons'' on disability have led to innovations for the broader public that range from a smartphone app that uses artificial intelligence to read a menu – or a person's hair color – to adaptive controllers for the popular Xbox that assist gamers with mobility issues.
Walgreens has run a Transitional Work Group program for over a decade, in which people with disabilities are trained and coached over 13 weeks for potential positions in the retailer's warehouses and distribution centers.
Meanwhile, its "REDI" (Retail Employees With Disabilities Initiative) program offers training for a potential position in a store, from working the cash register to stocking shelves.
Roughly 1,600 trainees have taken part in the initiative. And while Walgreens aims to hire at least 60% of those who complete the program, some trainees have gone on to jobs at others retailers including Macy's and Publix, says Carlos Cubia, vice president diversity and inclusion, and global chief diversity officer for Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.
"We make no concession in terms of the job expectations, in terms of the pay,'' says Cubia. The expectation is hires will "perform at the same level, be there every day, have the same responsibilities as people without a disability."
Anecdotally, he says, the company sees less absenteeism and longer tenures from employees with disabilities.
Voya, a financial company, began focusing on workers with disabilities in earnest in 2016. It developed a plan to bolster its hiring, benefits and policies for those with disabilities. It is also helping clients provide additional financial planning tools and resources to those with disabilities and special needs along with their caregivers.
Roughly 3% of Voya employees say they have a disability or have had one in the past, and the company has adjusted its interview process for those on the spectrum.
"A literal question might not be a great way to get at whether the candidate has certain talents,'' says Heather Lavallee, president of tax-exempt markets for Voya’s Retirement business. "That same person might be exceptional at IT work that really requires head down focus and discipline."
Tha extra effort can yield a great return, says Reeves.
“When you give someone with a disability a chance, you will get someone who is loyal and hard working and they will work twice as hard,'' she says, "because they know what it’s like to not be given a chance.’’