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
"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
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
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. …