Most DEI Programs Exclude People With Disabilities. Here’s How Your Company Can Change That.

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More companies than ever are creating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives to recruit and retain the best employees from the widest talent pool. But one group often goes overlooked in these initiatives: people with disabilities.

Currently, only about 18 percent of people with disabilities are employed. That leaves a lot of untapped talent ready, willing, and able to work. By rethinking recruitment, retention, and reward, more employers can successfully connect with these workers.

Companies that include people with disabilities in their DEI efforts stand to realize a host of benefits, including greater productivity, improved customer satisfaction, and better engagement in the local community. That’s why some of the world’s largest companies, including UPS and JPMorgan Chase, have created targeted programs designed to reach these candidates.

UPS partners with the disability service provider Options Unlimited to run pre-employment training for people with disabilities. Since the program’s launch, about 87 percent of participants have earned employment with UPS. JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work program, an initiative to hire more people on the autism spectrum, has a 99 percent retention rate. The company states that, “compared to peers, the Autism at Work employees were 48 percent faster and as much as 92 percent more productive” in their roles.

Rethinking Your Company’s Inclusion Efforts

How can a company attract and retain people with disabilities, and thereby unlock the value of this underutilized talent pool?

It’s not as difficult a task as it may seem. Small changes to recruitment, retention, and rewards programs can make it easier to engage, hire, and retain people with disabilities.

Rethinking Recruitment

As the recruiting process becomes more technology-driven, many people with disabilities are unintentionally shut out. Websites and job application platforms may be inaccessible. Many professional networks don’t include people with disabilities, and internship and apprentice programs can be hard for them to come by.

By taking a few simple steps, employers can alleviate these problems and make the recruitment process more inclusive for candidates with disabilities. Good ways to start include:

• Partner with nonprofit organizations that aim to connect people with disabilities with employment opportunities. Creative Spirit is one example.
• Establish apprenticeship programs, summer internships, and mentoring programs to help individuals with disabilities get the experience and job training they need to compete for positions.
• Reach out to local school districts and offer your help to align educational curricula with skilled labor needs.

Rethinking Retention

Recruiting people with disabilities is only the first step. As with any new hire, you must also ensure they have what they need to thrive once they’re in the role.

Providing a source of support — such as a mentor, job coach, or supervisor — helps employees build constructive relationships, form positive habits and goals, and take advantage of development opportunities. Those in support positions can also solicit feedback from their mentees on how the company can do even more to make sure employees with disabilities can do their jobs well.

On an organization-wide level, companies should consider putting the following support practices into effect:

• Develop an organizational disability strategy
• Review and improve recruitment processes for inclusivity
• Identify necessary operational supports
• Create customized workplace accommodations
• Develop an inclusive employee onboarding program
• Develop and deploy inclusion training on a regular basis
• Create disability awareness and employment training

For each individual employee, employers can take the following steps:

• Ensure flexible work arrangements
• Create ongoing skill, leadership, and career development programs
• Ensure access to accelerated promotional pathways
• Adopt a formal mentoring and job coaching system

Rethinking Reward

The third challenge companies often face when employing people with disabilities is providing them with the same level of compensation and benefits as their peers receive. The difficulty arises from federal limits on the amount of income people with disabilities can earn before they start losing vital benefits and services.

Until public policy catches up to the DEI movement, companies need to get creative to equitably reward employees with disabilities. Here are a few tactics to consider:

• Have open conversations with employees about their government benefits and any restrictions around those benefits
• Offer employees with disabilities the option to access the same benefits package as other employees, and allow them to choose between this traditional benefits package or a public benefits package (e.g., Medicaid or Social Security)
• Adjust the hours of employees who receive public benefits so they don’t lose necessary federal or state assistance
• Encourage employees with disabilities, their family members, and their caregivers to use ABLE accounts to save resources without jeopardizing benefits.

The steps to inclusion are simple. Join the movement to tap into a wide pool of talented employees who are ready, willing, and able to work.

Nicholas Wyman is CEO and founder of IWSI America. Sara Hart Weir is a senior associate at IWSI America. They are coauthors of the report, Ready, Willing, and Able: Why It Pays to Hire People With Disabilities.

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By Nicholas Wyman and Sara Hart Weir