Ready, Willing, and Working ; Some Employers Are Not Only Accommodating, but Actively Recruiting Disabled Employees

Article excerpt

Like so many aspiring chefs, Betty-Jo Wilt started off humbly in the restaurant business - by scrubbing pots.

Five days a week, she gets up at 5:30 a.m., takes two trains to the Citizens Bank processing center in Medford, Mass., and dons her white jacket and hat at the employee cafeteria.

In her relationship with her bosses, she places a high premium on honesty.

"I won't lie to them, and they won't lie to me, so it's cool. They treat me like the normal person I want to feel like," says Ms. Wilt, who has a mild form of mental retardation.

A few years ago, Wilt participated in a pilot school-to-career program through Triangle Inc., a nonprofit agency in the bordering town of Malden. Triangle provides services to about 600 disabled people each year, always emphasizing its motto, "People with Ability." The curriculum for the six students in the Citizens Bank program included everything from servicing ATM machines to dressing appropriately for work, and Wilt was one of two graduates hired full time by the bank.

Senior executives at Citizens Bank have been so happy with the results that they hope to establish similar partnerships along the East Coast. And that level of commitment, generated by managers who have firsthand experience with disabled employees, is what's needed to break down barriers between employers and the disabled, advocates and business leaders say.

More than a decade since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) established employers' obligations to treat disabled people fairly, progress remains slow. In the United States, 22 million people ages 16 to 74 have a work disability, the Census Bureau reports. Only 21 percent of them are employed, compared with 72 percent of people with no work disability.

Not everyone wants to work or feels capable of it, but 67 percent of unemployed disabled people say they'd prefer to have jobs, according to Work Trends, a study published this spring by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Of those who are working, 40 percent say the jobs don't require them to fully use their abilities.

On the employer side, 26 percent of companies employ at least one person with a disability. Only 11 percent use advertising and recruiting methods specifically targeting these applicants.

But a nexus of government agencies, nonprofits, and leading-edge employers are innovating to close the gap. In October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month, they will be particularly busy spreading the message that companies' efforts to welcome and accommodate employees with disabilities are rewarded by the skills and loyalty these employees bring to the job.

"It's good business to hire people with disabilities ... and more leading companies realize that and are reaching out," says Roy Grizzard, an assistant secretary in the Department of Labor who's in charge of the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) in Washington.

Employers sometimes worry that making adjustments for a disabled worker will be costly, but businesses surveyed by ODEP say that 69 percent of their accommodations cost less than $500; only 3 percent exceed $5,000. A saw operator with a learning disability, for instance, simply needed a $5 card that explained how to measure fractions of an inch. And a lab researcher who couldn't bend his neck fully after an injury was able to adapt his microscope for $2,400. The companies reported a $29 return for every $1 spent on accommodations.

One bank's push

SunTrust Bank Mid-Atlantic has worked hard in the past few years to earn its reputation as a disability-friendly employer, says vice president Katherine McCary, director of its Accessing Community Talent program. The Richmond, Va., bank recruits through vocational- rehabilitation agencies. It encourages the temporary staffing firm, Manpower, to send people with disabilities to the bank as temps, some of whom have bridged into permanent employment. …