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What Do Employers Forego When They Don’t Hire Persons With Disabilities?

Michelle LaLumia's avatar

By: Michelle LaLumia

October 18, 2017 | EEO

The 2016 biopic Hidden Figures tells the true but little-known story of the black female mathematicians who NASA began employing in the 1950s to help win the Space Race against the Soviet Union. The protagonist, Katherine Johnson, is a numerical genius who manages to become the only non-white, non-male member of NASA Langley Research Center’s Space Task Group, the elite group of engineers charged with getting American astronauts into space first.

The film climaxes with a scene in which the Langley director, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), confronts Johnson (Taraji Henson) amid the dead silence and averted gazes of her coworkers. Harrison demands to know where she disappears to for so long every day. Soaking wet from running in the rain, Johnson at first composes herself but ultimately explodes.

“The bathroom, sir... There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the west campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself.”

This being a Hollywood adaptation, the outraged Harrison literally takes a sledgehammer to the “White” sign over the women’s restroom, declaring, “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color!” The audience cheers. The barrier removed, Johnson goes on to calculate the Mercury spacecraft trajectory that helped John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.

The last part is true, but the riveting face-off scene is fiction, and the Al Harrison character is a mashup of three different NASA past chiefs. Still, the Hidden Figures story is astounding because it sheds light on some grim facts that are more than a footnote to our nation’s history.

Many minorities still have a long way to go to achieve equal opportunity. The vast potential of one large minority in particular remains largely hidden to employers: persons with disabilities. 

Last Hired, First Fired

Thankfully, today an integrated bathroom isn’t considered a reasonable accommodation (RA). But at Langley in the 1950s, that’s exactly what it was. Remove the phrase “with a disability” from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definition, and RA is “any change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) to help a person [with a disability] apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.i  Persons with disabilities are still fighting for such basic workplace accommodations.

Despite ADA mandates, employment of persons with disabilities still lags far behind that of general employment. In 2001, a group of researchers performed a literature review of 67 studies conducted in the last 20 years about employer attitudes toward employing persons with disabilities.ii The researchers found that employment rates for persons with disabilities fell even when median family incomes overall rose dramatically in the U.S., and that persons with disabilities are often the last hired and first fired.

The literature review substantiated several employer-related reasons for lower employment rates, namely concerns about productivity, labor costs, and legal actions. Ultimately, however, researchers determined the primary cause of persistent underemployment was employer attitudes about persons with disabilities rather than direct experience hiring them. In fact, such fears contrast sharply with the actual costs incurred and positive experience of inclusive employers.

Dispelling the Myths

Unsubstantiated beliefs prevent employers from tapping into the skills of qualified persons with disabilities. Debunking some of the most-cited reasons for non-inclusive practices is the first step to reversing them.

Productivity. Even persons with disabilities who do not request employee accommodations must often overcome employers’ assumptions that they will be less productive than other workers. Yet people with disabilities tend to have an equally valuable quality in spades: tenacity. Because they must surmount daily obstacles, often over a lifetime, they are skilled at identifying alternative solutions and leveraging allies to get things done.

Labor costs. Many employers assume that making persons with disabilities productive requires costly accommodations and other investments. Per above, not all persons with disabilities require RA, and when they do, advances in assistive technologies are making such provisions very affordable. According to a 2009 U.S. Department of Labor survey of employers who actually did make workplace accommodations, 46 percent said the accommodations cost nothing (e.g., scheduling changes and task substitution), and 45 percent experienced a one-time cost, with a median cost of $500 (e.g., office redesign, computer software, or other assistive devices). iii

Legal actions. As long as employers follow ADA guidelines and properly track and manage RA requests, they have little to fear. A review of 696 lawsuits charging ADA violations found that 96 percent of the decisions favored the employer, either through summary judgment or based on merits of the case. iv

A recent decision in a federal disability discrimination case reinforces the importance of documentation in particular. In the case (Winfred H. v. Department of the Treasury, EEOC Appeal No. 0120150402, August 13, 2017), a maintenance worker alleged that the agency did not accommodate his heart disease and foot damage when it required him to work outside of his medical restrictions. The EEOC disagreed, saying the agency "made an impressive good faith effort" to accommodate the employee. DOT had produced detailed accounts of the many steps taken to provide the employee with RA, including reassignment, instructions not to work beyond his restrictions, assistance when he did encounter such work, and placement on extended, paid administrative leave while conducting an agency-wide search for a suitable telework position for him.

The Disability Moonshot

You don’t need a sledgehammer to be a hero to persons with disabilities who want to contribute their talents to meaningful work. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, so it’s a great time to step up. Don’t know where to start? The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) helps employers recruit, hire, retain, and advance people with disabilities. To effectively manage your RA program, rely on ETK Reasonable Accommodation.

i https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/disability.cfm
ii http://www.cprf.org/studies/why-employers-dont-hire-people-with-disabilities-a-survey-of-the-literature/
iii https://www.dol.gov/odep/documents/reasonableaccomodatations.pdf
iv http://www.cprf.org/studies/why-employers-dont-hire-people-with-disabilities-a-survey-of-the-literature/

About the Author

Michelle LaLumia was a member of the marketing team with MicroPact from 2016 - 2018.

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