Washington State, Microsoft Help Disabled Get Employment

Article excerpt

A recent American Community Survey highlighted 2009 data regarding status and employment, and estimated that only 34.7 percent of people with disabilities were employed, compared with 71.9 percent of people without, according to the report.

Meanwhile, Harris Interactive recently conducted a survey, sponsored by Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability, showing that 70 percent of registered corporations have established diversity initiatives in the workplace; however, only two-thirds of these companies include disability inclusion in their diversity movements. As a result, there have been marginal improvements in the employment gap between people with and without disabilities.

Toby Olson, executive secretary of the Washington state Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment, attributes these shortcomings to an employer tendency not to want to think outside the box, overlooking what he calls the "innovation bonus."

"Innovation is the basic, fundamental skill in the life of a disability," Olson said. "The most common, universal experience of living with a disability is the need to find a way to do something or succeed in something when the usual way doesn't work or is barred for you."

Microsoft is one company that understands this concept; its own diversity initiatives have made their products more accessible because people inside the company are a part of the user base and can influence, to some extent, the various products the company develops, said Loren Mikola, manager of Microsoft's Disability Inclusion Program.

Specifically, the company has done a lot of work focused on bringing individuals, transitioning high school students onto the track of information technology; the accessibility of their software really determines how successful many people with disabilities are in the workplace.

"Our philosophy has always been to make products that we want everyone to use worldwide, and the disabled population is a significant portion of that," Mikola said.

Microsoft has also been able to share its best practices with other companies; it sends representatives to colleges and universities, directs people to its web site, and holds new recruiter orientations to encourage disability inclusion in company hiring practices.

In October the company, along with the Washington state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and other stakeholders, hosted a statewide conference called "Strategies for Keeping Competitive and in Compliance," which educated employers on the benefits of tapping into the disabled labor pool. …