The Disabled as Part of a Diverse Workforce

Article excerpt


As the demographic makeup of America becomes more diverse, the effect of that diversity on the workforce and how it should be managed have become critical issues. Managers are being charged with creating organizations that capitalize on the benefits of workforces diverse in terms of race, national origin, and gender (Cox, 1991, p. 34). A discussion of the diverse workforce should not exclude persons with disabilities - some 43 million persons (Fletcher, 1991). Of that segment, more than two-thirds of adults with disabilities are not working, though more than 70% desire employment (Davila, 1991).

The need to include the disabled in issues concerning workforce diversity has been underscored recently by significant civil rights legislation. The Americans with Disabilities Act, a "sweeping statute viewed as no less than a bill of rights"' (Stein, 1991, p. 6) mandates that employers may not discriminate against persons with disabilities in their human resource decisions. Over and above the many changes in policy and procedure managers may face in complying with the law, they must adopt a positive approach toward the disabled before these persons can be successfully assimilated in the workforce.

Michael J. Lotito, a management and labor relations attorney, states, "It's important to train people with respect to the law but also with respect to attitudes. It's our (unease) that prevents us in large part from integrating people with disabilities into our society" (Woolsey, 1991). A positive attitude regarding potential employees with disabilities can be developed from a simple analogy: A regular function of management is to evaluate the level of skill and experience of an employee and provide the necessary training and resources to enable that person to function productively. Similarly, persons with differing physical or mental abilities can, with appropriate accommodations, also perform positively on the job. In each case, management would be fulfilling its traditional role of evaluation and providing job-related accommodations except the nature of accommodation will reflect the needs of each employee.

Recognizing that all employees need some form of accommodation promotes a view of persons with disabilities as "differently abled" rather than "not abled." With such an approach in mind, management should become familiar with the new law - we extent of its coverage, and its requirement that disabled individuals be considered before new human resources policies and procedures are formulated. This article will review each of these areas of concern and provide suggestions for action.

Legislative Background

Though various types of federal protection had been extended to persons with disabilities for many years, Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) and Representative Charles Vanik (D-OH) failed in their effort in the early 1970s to amend the Civil Rights Act to give persons with physical or mental disabilities comprehensive protection of rights (Percy, 1989, p. 53). However, the right of disabled persons to equal employment opportunity ties was established by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, in which sections 503 and 504 prohibit discrimination in employment by federal contractors or entities receiving federal funds (Twomey, 1986, p. 90-91). Even though both the Civil Rights Act and the Rehabilitation Act were later amended to close significant loopholes in protection, it was not until the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) that comprehensive employment protection was extended to persons with disabilities (Stein, 1991).

ADA, which mandates sweeping change in employment, transportation, services, accommodations, and telecommunications, in both the public and private sectors, passed both houses of Congress with near unanimity (Jones, 1990). Significantly, there was also support for this type of legislation among management. A nationwide survey of 920 top managers, EEO officers, line managers, and small business managers were asked if disabled persons should be covered by civil rights laws against discrimination. …