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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 30 percent of the 15.3 million Americans between ages 16 and 64 with disabilities participated in the workforce in 2018, compared to 74 percent of Americans without a disability. An Accenture analysis suggests that shifting recruitment efforts to focus on disability inclusion would provide companies with access to a new talent pool of more than 10.7 million people.

In light of this, companies may benefit from working with employment specialists who can help them identify how job seekers with disabilities can strengthen their businesses and meet currently unmet needs. And yet many employers are unaware of what employment specialists can do for them.

Today, I’d like to demystify the pivotal role of employment specialist in supporting both employees with disabilities and their employers.

An Inside Look at an Employment Specialist’s Job

Essentially, employment specialists give employees with disabilities the support they need around work habits, communication, and interpersonal interactions to succeed in the workplace. Employment specialists also work with employers to identify alternative, more efficient ways to get the work done. But what exactly does that mean?

Let’s take a look at Matt Hoffman, for example. Matt, the employment specialist for Arc of Evansville, supported William Seyler as he began work at Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library in Indiana. Before working with Matt, William had never been employed and had never ridden a city bus. To help William acclimate to his first community job, Matt met with the library staff beforehand to get to know them and the kinds of tasks they each performed. He also met with the branch manager to gain a better understanding of the library work culture, customer demographics, and busiest hours. Matt wanted a thorough understanding of the library branch to ensure he was supporting both William and the library in the best way possible.

Matt spent several hours with William riding the city bus around town to help William feel comfortable with taking public transit to his new job. Matt participated in the library’s HR onboarding process with William to help ease his anxiety about the unknown and unexpected. He also encouraged William to get to know his coworkers and helped get conversations started during breaks.

Thanks to Matt’s help, William now talks freely with his coworkers and customers, despite his quietness. He has developed a nice friendship with his colleague Steve, with whom he has a lot in common (including a love of St. Louis Cardinals baseball). William has become more independent and manages his work schedule, plans out his bus transportation, and handles his finances. When William transferred to a larger library, Matt helped ensure a smooth transition by following the same employment specialist best practices that proved successful for William the first time around.

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Benefits for Workers With Disabilities

Workers with disabilities are our neighbors, our siblings, our children, and our friends. It’s clear that employment specialists, like Matt, who support people with disabilities have the power to transform the course of their lives for the better. Integrated employment for people with disabilities in typical workplace settings (where the majority of employees are not persons with disabilities) can lift them out of poverty and social isolation.

I know that, personally speaking, working improves my quality of life. Financially, I can do the things I wish to do, like travel and go out to eat. The relationships grown through work have been some of the most formative and pivotal in my life. I know I’m not alone in this, and we all deserve to work hard and reap the benefits.

Advantages for Employers

It’s good business for employers to fill positions that need workers, and employment specialists can help employers leverage a new segment of the labor pool to do so. Organizations may also benefit from working with an employment specialist to carve out a new position to fit the skills of a person with disabilities who can meet the needs of the business.

Engaging an employment specialist can directly benefit an organization’s HR practitioners as it encourages them to develop new professional skill sets that will be in high demand if the economy’s focus on inclusive employment practices continues to grow — and there is little reason to think it won’t.

Furthermore, according to the Accenture analysis cited above, US GDP could increase by as much as $25 billion if the number of Americans with disabilities in the workforce increased by just one percent. In other words, inclusion can boost a company’s bottom line.

As USA Today reports, companies like Voya, Microsoft, and Walgreens are taking important steps in recruiting and supporting workers with disabilities. Businesses large and small across the country can engage with employment specialists to follow in those footsteps.

Interested in getting connected with an employment specialist in your community? Reach out to the Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE) — a professional organization for employment specialists — or contact your state’s vocational rehabilitation agency to get in touch with an employment specialist near you.

Maya E. Cox is a consultant with Public Consulting Group. She serves on the board of directors for the Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE).

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