For Disabled Workers, a Tight Labor Market Opens New Doors

With Covid prompting more employers to consider remote arrangements, employment has soared among adults with disabilities.

Kathryn Wiltz, wearing glasses, looks straight at the camera from the doorway of her home.
Before the pandemic, Kathryn Wiltz repeatedly asked her employer to let her work from home because of her disability, but was denied. Credit: Sarah Rice for The New York Times

Ben Casselman |Oct. 25, 2022

The strong late-pandemic labor market is giving a lift to a group often left on the margins of the economy: workers with disabilities.

Employers, desperate for workers, are reconsidering job requirements, overhauling hiring processes and working with nonprofit groups to recruit candidates they might once have overlooked. At the same time, companies’ newfound openness to remote work has led to opportunities for people whose disabilities make in-person work — and the taxing daily commute it requires — difficult or impossible.

As a result, the share of disabled adults who are working has soared in the past two years, far surpassing its prepandemic level and outpacing gains among people without disabilities.

Share employed, change since Jan. 2020

Note: Includes workers between 18 and 64 years old. Data is not seasonally adjusted. Source: Current Population Survey, via IPUMS. By The New York Times

 

In interviews and surveys, people with disabilities report that they are getting not only more job offers, but better ones, with higher pay, more flexibility and more openness to providing accommodations that once would have required a fight, if they were offered at all.

“The new world we live in has opened the door a little bit more,” said Gene Boes, president and chief executive of the Northwest Center, a Seattle organization that helps people with disabilities become more independent. “The doors are opening wider because there’s just more demand for labor.”

Samir Patel, who lives in the Seattle area, has a college degree and certifications in accounting. But he also has autism spectrum disorder, which has made it difficult for him to find steady work. He has spent most of his career in temporary jobs found through staffing agencies. His longest job lasted a little over a year; many lasted only a few months.

This summer, however, Mr. Patel, 42, got a full-time, permanent job as an accountant for a local nonprofit group. The job brought a 30 percent raise, along with retirement benefits, more predictable hours and other perks. Now he is thinking about buying a home, traveling and dating — steps that seemed impossible without the stability of a steady job.

“It’s a boost in confidence,” he said. “There were times when I felt like I was behind.”

Mr. Patel, whose disability affects his speech and can make conversation difficult, worked with an employment coach at the Northwest Center to help him request accommodations both during the interview process and once he started the job. And while Mr. Patel usually prefers to work in the office, his new employer also allows him to work remotely when he needs to — a big help on days when he finds the sensory overload of the office overwhelming.
“If I have my bad days, I just pick up the laptop and work from home,” he said.

Workers with disabilities have long seen their fortunes ebb and flow with the economy. Federal law prohibits most employers from discriminating against people with disabilities, and it requires them to make reasonable accommodations. But research has found that discrimination remains common: One 2017 study found that job applications that disclosed a disability were 26 percent less likely to receive interest from prospective employers. And even when they can find jobs, workers with disabilities frequently encounter barriers to success, from bathroom doors they cannot open without assistance to hostile co-workers.

Workers with disabilities — like other groups that face obstacles to employment, such as those with criminal records — tend to benefit disproportionately from strong job markets, when employers have more of an incentive to seek out untapped pools of talent. But when recessions hit, those opportunities quickly dry up.

“We have a last-in, first-out labor market, and disabled people are often among the last in and the first out,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington research organization.

Remote work, however, has the potential to break that cycle, at least for some workers. In a new study, Mr. Ozimek found that employment had risen for workers with disabilities across industries as the labor market improved, consistent with the usual pattern. But it has improved especially rapidly in industries and occupations where remote work is more common. And many economists believe that the shift toward remote work, unlike the red-hot labor market, is likely to prove lasting.

More than 35 percent of disabled Americans ages 18 to 64 had jobs in September. That was up from 31 percent just before the pandemic and is a record in the 15 years the government has kept track. Among adults without disabilities, 78 percent had jobs, but their employment rates have only just returned to the level before the pandemic.

“Disabled adults have seen employment rates recover much faster,” Mr. Ozimek said. “That’s good news, and it’s important to understand whether that’s a temporary thing or a permanent thing. And my conclusion is that not only is it a permanent thing, but it’s going to improve.”

Before the pandemic, Kathryn Wiltz repeatedly asked her employer to let her work from home because of her disability, a chronic autoimmune disorder whose symptoms include pain and severe fatigue. Her requests were denied.

Kathryn Wiltz, wearing a gray graphic T-shirt, sits at a desk in front of a laptop.
Ms. Wiltz’s new job allows her to work from home permanently. Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Time

When the pandemic hit, however, the hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Ms. Wiltz worked in the medical billing department sent her home along with many of her colleagues. Last month, she started a job with a new employer, an insurance company, in which she will be permanently able to work remotely.

Being able to work from home was a high priority for Ms. Wiltz, 31, because the treatments she receives suppress her immune system, leaving her vulnerable to the coronavirus. And even if that risk subsides, she said, she finds in-person work taxing: Getting ready for work, commuting to the office and interacting with colleagues all drain energy reserves that are thin to begin with. As she struggled through one particularly difficult day recently, she said, she reflected on how hard it would have been to need to go into the office.

“It would have been almost impossible,” she said. “I would have pushed myself and I would have pushed my body, and there’s a very real possibility that I would have ended up in the hospital.”

There are also subtler benefits. Ms. Wiltz can get the monthly drug infusions she receives to treat her disorder during her lunch break, rather than taking time off work. She can turn down the lights to stave off migraines. She doesn’t have to worry that her colleagues are staring at her and wondering what is wrong. All of that, she said, makes her a more productive employee.

“It makes me a lot more comfortable and able to think more clearly and do a better job anyway,” she said.
The sudden embrace of remote work during the pandemic was met with some exasperation from some disability-rights leaders, who had spent years trying, mostly without success, to persuade employers to offer more flexibility to their employees.

“Remote work and remote-work options are something that our community has been advocating for for decades, and it’s a little frustrating that for decades corporate America was saying it’s too complicated, we’ll lose productivity, and now suddenly it’s like, sure, let’s do it,” said Charles-Edouard Catherine, director of corporate and government relations for the National Organization on Disability.

Still, he said the shift is a welcome one. For Mr. Catherine, who is blind, not needing to commute to work means not coming home with cuts on his forehead and bruises on his leg. And for people with more serious mobility limitations, remote work is the only option.

Many employers are now scaling back remote work and are encouraging or requiring employees to return to the office. But experts expect remote and hybrid work to remain much more common and more widely accepted than it was before the pandemic. That may make it easier for disabled employees to continue to work remotely.

The pandemic may also reshape the legal landscape. In the past, employers often resisted offering remote work as an accommodation to disabled workers, and judges rarely required them to do so. But that may change now that so many companies were able to adapt to remote work in 2020, said Arlene S. Kanter, director of the Disability Law and Policy Program at the Syracuse University law school.

“If other people can show that they can perform their work well at home, as they did during Covid, then people with disabilities, as a matter of accommodation, shouldn’t be denied that right,” Ms. Kanter said.

Ms. Kanter and other experts caution that not all people with disabilities want to work remotely. And many jobs cannot be done from home. A disproportionate share of workers with disabilities are employed in retail and other industries where remote work is uncommon. Despite recent gains, people with disabilities are still far less likely to have jobs, and more likely to live in poverty, than people without them.

“When we say it’s historically high, that’s absolutely true, but we don’t want to send the wrong message and give ourselves a pat on the back,” Mr. Catherine said. “Because we’re still twice as likely to be unemployed and we’re still underpaid when we’re lucky enough to be employed.”

Disability issues are likely to become more prominent in coming years because the pandemic has left potentially millions of adults dealing with a disability. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimated that close to two million working-age Americans had become disabled because of long Covid.

Employers that don’t find ways to accommodate workers with disabilities — whether through remote work or other adjustments — are going to continue to struggle to find employees, said Mason Ameri, a Rutgers University business professor who studies disability.

“Employers have to shape up,” he said. “Employers have to pivot. Otherwise this labor shortage may be more permanent.”

Ben Casselman writes about economics, with a particular focus on stories involving data. He previously reported for FiveThirtyEight and The Wall Street Journal.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge Gives First On-Camera Interview Since Suffering Stroke

December 28th, 2021 | Lori Burkholder, Anchor

Watch the interview here

He shared his journey following a health scare over the summer.

“I’m getting better every day by increments. I can tell. I’m doing great. Fabulous. Better than I was a couple months ago, that’s for sure,” he said.

In his first on-camera interview since he had a stroke in June, Ridge described what his life has been like.

“A good day is when you wake up in the morning and see the sun shining. I say, ‘Thank you, God, another day to hopefully do better than I did the day before,'” he said.

The stroke affected his left side.

“I can’t do everything I want to do because of some limitations. And the good news is once the therapy is completed, I’ll be able to get back and do everything I was doing before. That’s the goal,” he said.

Ridge goes to Niagara Therapy in Erie three days a week, working on getting back what the stroke stole.

He gets special help from Hope, a dog who was named for what she gives people like Ridge.

“She’s very popular. She’s very entertaining, sometimes a bit stubborn. She’s been great. He really does love working with her,” occupational therapist Markelle Blair said.

“If I can walk out of therapy session today feeling better or stronger or more agile or better prepared for tomorrow, then I’ve had a good day in therapy,” Ridge said.

Ridge continues to improve and said it’s all about the three Ps.

“It takes patience, perseverance and practice. Part of it’s a mindset, and I hope people who watch this would say, ‘Hey, Ridge can do it, I can do it. No big deal.’ You can restore a semblance of a normal life. You can do it. You can just do it,” he said.

Ridge hopes his journey inspires others, just like those who inspired him.

“I think of my condition. I think of Bob Dole, who had very limited use of his right arm. Incredible story – one of my personal heroes. I was honored to be invited to the celebration of his life and his legacy,” he said.

When asked what Ridge wants his legacy to be, he had this answer: “I’ve been privileged to serve my community and my country in multiple ways. I just want people to know I’m grateful for the opportunity for that service and hope they take a look back, regardless of political persuasion, and say, ‘Ridge might not have been the brightest light bulb in the chandelier but we know he worked hard and we’re grateful for that.’ I hope that’s it.”

Ridge said he’s thankful for all the people who have reached out to him since his stroke. He also encouraged stroke survivors to take advantage of all the resources available because he’s proof that those resources make a difference.

Is Your Business’s Online Job Search Process Accessible for People With Disabilities?

By Charles Catherine | Essential Accessibility Blog | October 28th, 2021

 

Close-up of a computer mouse clicking on a link titled "Jobs"

 

If you look around your neighborhood these days, chances are you will see a lot of “help wanted” signs dotting the business landscape.

As we repeatedly hear, a labor shortage is gripping our nation and employers are struggling to find people wanting a job.

But below the surface is another story. People with disabilities say they want to apply for job openings but often can’t get past the application or interview process. Many online applications are not accessible to screen readers, for instance, and captioning isn’t always available during online job interviews. This leaves many people with disabilities discouraged and unable to even take the first step toward employment.

 

Is your application process accessible?

 

In some ways, it’s a real paradox. More and more companies are committed to providing accommodations for their employees with disabilities, making sure they have the technology necessary to work remotely, for example, yet the application process may be riddled with online barriers, preventing these individuals from even applying in the first place.

At the National Organization on Disability, we understand it is not always easy for companies to know everything involved with recruiting and hiring people with disabilities. Adding to the complexity, many people are not likely to disclose a disability during the application process, for fear of discrimination. And they have good reason to feel that way: a Rutgers University study found that employers expressed interest in candidates 26 percent less often if they disclosed a disability in their cover letter.

NOD, whose mission is to make sure all Americans can work, would love it if the current underemployment situation became a boon for people with disabilities. However, only 36 percent of people with disabilities who can work have found jobs in the current economy. This is compared to an average of about 76 percent for their able-bodied peers, according to a recent report.

But we can turn this statistic around. As the saying goes, we don’t know what we don’t know. Companies may need outside help to open up their online employment process to everyone. They also might consider reevaluating their disability inclusion programs.

 

Track your website’s accessibility

 

NOD’s  Disability Employment Tracker allows companies to see where they stand against their own disability benchmarks and against those of other companies. We have found that 72 percent of those who have completed the Tracker have a website that is accessible. That is a good beginning but leaves room for improvement when it comes to other digital assets like recruiting sites and accommodations during the interview process.

 

Here are some ideas for businesses as they consider their online hiring practices:

 

  • Assign a disability champion who makes sure digital accessibility is a priority
  • Closely examine (and test) all of your digital properties to make sure they are accessible
  • Provide disability inclusion training for the HR team and others
  • Think about whether your presentations, videos, website, online job application, and interview process are all accessible
  • Designate a point person for prospective employees if they have questions or difficulties applying or interviewing for a job
  • Be certain your onboarding materials are accessible once someone is hired

You should also ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is our website compatible with screen readers?
  • Do we have an accessible landing page specifically for job seekers with disabilities?
  • Do we use plain language in all of our job postings and messaging?
  • Are we including captioning on videos and during online interviews?
  • Do we have access to sign language interpreters?
  • Do we have proper accommodations for online interviews with neurodiverse candidates?

 

By making sure the online application and interview processes are inclusive to people with disabilities, companies will tap into a greater pipeline of talented job candidates, and by doing so, change the culture of their workforce for the better. And while this is a great conversation to have as we close out National Disability Employment Awareness Month, it’s the NOD’s hope that finding ways to help people of all abilities easily apply for a job becomes an ongoing discussion.

Shifting the Talent Paradigm | Shift Communications: Breaking Barriers with Technology

 

September 26, 2019 – More than 200 diversity and inclusion leaders from companies around the country gathered at the National Organization on Disability’s (NOD) Annual Forum and Dinner, entitled Shifting the Talent Paradigm: Inclusive Culture for a Modern Workforce. Sponsored by Lead Partners PwC and Spectrum, the all-day forum explored the best change management tactics that corporate leaders can deploy to create a more diverse and inclusive culture. Senior managers heard from executives and experts on the most effect tools and tactics to create an inclusive culture, as well as the leadership skills and personal attributes needed to lead a culture change.

Featuring: Rhonda Nesmith Crichlow, Senior Vice President, Chief Diversity Officer, Charter Communications; Mark Balsano, Vice President of Accessibility, Charter Communications; Amy Warner, Vice President and General Manager, IT Digital Business Solutions and Corporate Director of Accessibility, Intel; and Simon Dermer, CEO & Co-Founder, eSSENTIAL Accessibility

Want more content like this? Join the NOD Corporate Leadership Council to access resources in the Members’ Only Portal

How Google has stepped up its efforts to makes its own tech more accessible to the disabled

A group of Google employees, including Allen (center), prepare to give product demonstrations at an Assistive Technology Industry Association conference

Jillian D’Onfro | Published 11:00 AM ET Sat, 18 Aug 2018

Homework is a drag for any high schooler, but for the class of 2006’s Laura Palmaro Allen, even starting an assignment required a laborious, multistep process.

She and her family had to strip her textbooks from their bindings, run the pages through a high speed scanner, and digitize them — all before she could use text-to-speech software to actually ingest her history lesson or reading exercise. Allen has limited vision because of a rare eye condition called Choroidal Osteomas: At the time, her school didn’t offer any easier ways to accommodate her.

Fast-forward a decade and a half and Allen now regularly coaches visually impaired kids on far simpler ways to get their work done using near-ubiquitous smartphones or laptops. As a program manager for accessibility for Google‘s Chrome software, she not only gives demos, but spends her days making the company’s products work better for people with all different kinds of disabilities.

Over the past several years, the tech industry generally — and Google specifically — have been more deliberate about baking accessibility into products, and beefing up overall resources for the roughly one billion people worldwide with some form of disability.

While there’s still considerable work to do on existing products, Google sees its next big challenge as exploring how it can use its technology to help make the the wider world — not just the bits and bytes of digital screens — more accessible.

Here’s how the company’s trying to make that happen.

From grassroots advocacy to a cohesive system

Allen first joined Google in a sales role in 2010. She quickly noticed ways that products she used every day, like Docs and Gmail, could be improved for blind or low-vision users like herself.

Back then, there were some Google employees focused on accessibility, but the group was small and scattered. It spurred Allen to take on a “20 percent project,” consulting with different product teams across the company.

By 2013, Google realized that it needed to do better and do more. It launched a centralized Accessibility team to oversee all its products, as well as user research and employee education focused on disabilities.

The crux of that change was that while accessibility-related product decisions used to too-often rely on grassroots advocacy from people like Allen, there’s now a standardized process in place.

“Any new product or piece of a user interface needs to go through a set of accessibility checks and tests,” she said. “In the same way that privacy and security is checked for every product, accessibility is now checked as well.”

Allen now works full-time on making sure Google’s browser, operating system, and laptops work well for people with hearing, vision, dexterity, or cognition impairments. For example, the ChromeVox screen reader and adjustable magnification and contrast settings aid visually impaired users, and there’s a keyboard guide for people who can’t use a mouse.

Eve Andersson, who heads up Google’s centralized Accessibility team as the director of engineering, says the goal is to codify accessibility into every stage of a product’s life-cycle.

That kind of focus pays off widely, according to Dmitri Belser, executive director at the Center for Accessible Technology.

“Designing products with disabilities in mind creates products that are better for everybody,” he said. For example, captions aren’t just helpful for deaf people and even if you’re not visually impaired, high-contrast fonts are just easier to read, period. Plus, disability shouldn’t be a matter of us versus them.

“It’s is the one group we all join,” he added. “We all age, and so we’ll all get to be there at some point.”

Google’s next challenge

Google is quick to admit that it still has a ways to go to improve its existing products, but the company is eying another kind of tech potential, too.

“Disability is still so stigmatized that disabled people often face the ‘tyranny of low expectations,‘ where less is expected of them,” says Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability (NOD). “But you can’t just assume that people with disabilities are sitting at home in front of their computers — they’re out and about in the community.”

While most of Google’s accessibility efforts center on making all its digital products work better for people with disabilities, Andersson believes that the big opportunity lies in finding ways to use Google technology to make the physical world more accessible.

In March, Google Maps introduced “wheelchair accessible” routes in transit navigation. In May, it previewed a forthcoming app called Lookout that uses a smartphone camera, computer vision, and natural language processing to give users real-time descriptions of the world around them.

The latest safety report for Alphabet’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, includes a section about how it’s developing features like braille labels and audio cues (though it doesn’t mention accessibility for wheelchair users).

Andersson sees voice-controlled smart assistants as being one of the clearest ways to make many more products accessible. As connected-devices become more popular, blind or mobility-impaired people can suddenly control a much wider range of products simply by speaking.

For example, Google’s smart home division has approached senior living facilities to try to figure out how it could tweak its products to work better for older people, several people familiar with the discussions previously told CNBC.

“The possibilities are just wide open,” Andersson says. “With the advances that are happening now in AI and computer vision and internet of things, there is so much opportunity.”

Outside the Googleplex

While Google works to improve its own products and processes and launch into new domains, the Accessibility team has also ramped up its external focus.

Google reps sit on various web accessibility standards boards and committees, and the company publishes accessibility guides for third-party developers. It launched a free online accessibility development class, which includes training that all new Google employees complete during orientation, and Allen just helped put on an event with Teach Access, an organization that aims to make accessibility training mainstream in higher education.

Larry Goldberg, one of the founders of Teach Access and a director of accessible media at Oath, says that he’s seen an acceleration in interest, resources, and awareness from all major tech companies over the past half decade, in both product development and representation.

“The idea of ‘diversity in tech’ has traditionally looked at women, people of color, and LGBT representation— and now disability is becoming a bigger part of that conversation too,” Goldberg said. “The best way to make sure that products work for their stakeholders is to have people with disabilities on staff: It’s not just what we create, but the way we create it and who creates it.”

NOD’s Glazer says that the tech industry still ranks lower than others when it comes to disabled representation, according to its disability employment tracker.

Part of attracting disabled candidates is making sure the work environment accommodates them seamlessly. Andersson said that the Accessibility organization has steadily helped steer all Google’s campuses to being better equipped for people with disabilities. That includes small tweaks, like putting braille labels on the food in its micro-kitchens, or wider initiatives, like guiding managers on how to make every presentation accessible.

“We’re working really hard to make things better,” Allen stated. “I can’t say that everything is perfect or that our technology works for everyone, but we’re learning and changing so much all the time and that’s exciting.”

Read on CNBC

Charter Communications Innovates Cutting Edge Products—By and For People with Disabilities

Yesterday, NOD President Carol Glazer spent the morning with the Accessible Product Development team at Charter Communications, also known as Spectrum, the second largest US telecom company.

“It was a room filled with more than a dozen of the most talented, ingenious, dedicated young people I’ve ever met. They are innovating products most of us could never even dream of,” Glazer remarked.

Peter Brown, Vice President of Design, who leads the group, has quietly, but determinedly, assembled a team of skilled workers who truly reflect their customer base, including people with vision, mobility, and hearing disabilities, among others.

Rhonda Crichlow, Charter’s Chief Diversity Officer, was there to learn everything this group does in recruiting the best and brightest people with disabilities.

“To say it was inspirational is an understatement,” Glazer noted. “If you want to work for a company that is truly walking the talk of disability workforce inclusion, with the passion, dedication and resourcefulness required, look seriously at Charter. You will be as inspired as I am!”

Learn more about Charter Communications commitment to diversity and inclusion and their career opportunities.

 

Peter Brown, Charter Communications' Vice President of Design, speaking at NOD's Spring Networking Luncheon

Peter Brown, Charter Communications’ Vice President of Design, speaking at NOD Corporate Leadership Council Networking Luncheon in April, 2018

Rhonda Crichlow (right) speaking an a Women in Cable Telecommunications industry event

Rhonda Crichlow (right) speaking an a Women in Cable Telecommunications industry event

Inclusive Design Can Remove Barriers, Prevent Social Isolation

By Kathy Gurchiek September 18, 2017

It was going to be a momentous day. A day that Crystal Renée Emery had dreamed of since she was a girl.

The 2016 documentary that she wrote, directed and produced, “Black Women in Medicine,” had been nominated for an Oscar. The intense and expensive process to qualify for Oscar consideration included hosting a premiere in an Academy Award-approved theater in New York City.

Emery, who has a type of muscular dystrophy that leads to paralysis, uses a wheelchair. A member of her staff, checking the venue to make sure it was wheelchair-accessible, confirmed that there was a wheelchair lift mounted on the wall of the theater.

As the big day neared, Emery’s staff checked the venue once more. They discovered that the tiny, old lift was designed for a manually operated wheelchair. It could not handle a 350-lb. chair and the person using it. And the lift could only be accessed by climbing some steps.

The 54-year-old woman was unable to attend her own movie premiere, a moment she had dreamed of since she was a girl. Instead, Emery had to appear at the discussion panel that followed the screening via Skype.

The lift was an example of universal design—a modification made to increase accessibility, also called inclusive design—that failed miserably, she said, despite the theater owner’s genuine attempt to make the venue accessible.

Emery is the founder and executive director of URU, The Right to Be Inc., a nonprofit media production organization in New Haven, Conn., that promotes cultural competency and collaboration among diverse groups. She also is the author of Against All Odds: Celebrating Black Women in Medicine (URU, The Right to Be, Inc., 2015).

She shared her story at the recent Inclusion by Design disability employment forum in Arlington, Va. The National Organization on Disability (NOD)’s Corporate Leadership Council hosted the event, which attracted about 70 organizations.

Emery also recalled how an employer remedied a problem with her cubicle, which was too small to accommodate her scooter, when she worked at Showtime Networks in New York City. Her manager ordered a reconfiguration that enlarged her workspace and moved her closer to the bathroom.

“This was an example of a company’s willingness to [adapt] a physical space that was already considered handicapped-accessible,” Emery said. It also reflected corporate culture that is “sensitive to the needs of disabled people and a willingness to accommodate a special-needs person,” she added.

“Universal design should be design to meet the needs for all,” not just those with a disability, she said.

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment notes that “the quality of buildings and spaces has a strong influence on the quality of people’s lives. Decisions about the design, planning and management of places can enhance or restrict a sense of belonging. They can increase or reduce feelings of security , stretch or limit boundaries, promote or reduce mobility, and improve or damage health.  They can remove real and imagined barriers between communities and foster understanding and generosity of spirit.”

“Inclusion drives innovation” is the theme of National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October, according to the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy.

“Americans of all abilities must have access to good, safe jobs,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta in a news release announcing the theme. “Smart employers know that including different perspectives in problem-solving situations leads to better solutions. Hiring employees with diverse abilities strengthens their business, increases competition and drives innovation.”

Inclusive Design Benefits Customers, Employees

Maryellen Reardon, Ph.D., director of competitive analysis for Prudential Financial, has experienced severe hearing loss for the past 20 years.

Her employer gave her a laptop that had closed-captioning capability so that she could participate in meetings. However, technical problems in the meeting room meant that she couldn’t be present at the meeting; instead, she could participate only by using the laptop from her office.

“To have a solution that isolates a person is not true inclusion,” Reardon said. Her manager solved the problem by giving her an iPad with closed-captioning capability that could be used in the meeting room.

Inclusive design is “the reality of what you as companies do for your customers,” said Carol Glazer, NOD president, noting that such design benefits the company commercially. She pointed to New York City-based OXO, the maker of rubber-handled, ergonomically designed kitchen tools, as an example.

In 1989, businessman Sam Farber noticed how his wife, who had arthritis in her hands, struggled to use a vegetable peeler. After seven iterations, he created an easier-to-use tool, and the next year he developed OXO Good Grips Inc., introducing the concept of universal design to mass retail products.

People often use accommodations without realizing it, noted Claudia L. Gordon, Esq., senior manager, government and compliance, for Sprint in Washington, D.C., who served in President Barack Obama’s administration and was the first deaf black female attorney in the United States.

During a small-group discussion, Gordon—who communicates using American Sign Language (ASL)—described a recent conference where the microphone malfunctioned but an ASL interpreter was present. Those who were deaf were unaffected by the technical problem. Those who were not deaf and at the back of the room could not hear the speaker. Without a working microphone—an accommodation—their experience was hampered, Gordon pointed out.

“There are immediate fixes you can take action on and do every day to make universal design part of your culture,” Emery said, noting that it benefits everyone to do so. Steps organizations can take:

  • Listen carefully to what your employees say they need. “The solutions are right in front of you, but you have to be open to hear [what they are].”
  • Practice courageous conversations. “Be willing to have that conversation about the hard stuff, the awkward stuff, the stuff that is [too much information].”
  • Assess your workplace with clear eyes and make necessary adjustments. If entrance to your building requires climbing stairs, add a ramp that’s easy to find and use. Update any existing accommodations—such as an old wheelchair lift—and make sure they are easily accessible.
  • Model a corporate culture that is sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities and that shows a willingness to make accommodations.

“Universal design can be a reality,” Emery said, “but it’s up to you to make that happen.”

 

Read on the Society for Human Resources Management website.

Giant Eagle + NOD Case Study

Giant Eagle + NOD | ‘A customized workplace solution from the ground up’

OBJECTIVE

To architect a plan to implement universal design principles – a designed environment that can be utilized by all people, regardless of their age, size, disability – in Giant Eagle’s distribution facility to make every job position within the facility available to people with disabilities.

OUTCOME

When Giant Eagle made the decision to extend their diversity and inclusion goals beyond retail outlets to distribution centers, they brought in experts from the National Organization on Disability (NOD) to help. NOD conducted interviews with Giant Eagle team members and held a collaborative workshop to tailor a plan unique to Giant Eagle’s goals and worksite. NOD also analyzed jobs at Giant Eagle, including assessing how work gets done, and identified feasible changes to job structures, roles and shifts. Giant Eagle attributes much of the success of the six-month engagement to NOD’s inherent knowledge of and experience in the business world, as well as NOD’s ability to build trust across the company during a time of change.

TESTIMONIALS

“The NOD team was incredibly professional. They clearly are experts. They took time to figure out our culture. They took the time to meet the right people. They brought the right people to the table, from the HR staff to the operations staff to the union representatives. And really built trust across all of the teams. You know, when we’re talking about making changes, not everyone is always open to that. NOD was just so good at making sure that they were leveraging their expertise, all the while making the team feel like they were developing the strategy themselves. And I think that that’s so important for the long-term ownership of the plan. I absolutely would recommend NOD to any company that’s trying to improve their disability inclusion. I know they helped us and their professionalism and expertise is unrivalled.”

Jeremy Shapira | Special Projects, Inclusion and Diversity