Focusing on Abilities for a Great Workplace Culture

focus on abilitiesIndividuals with disabilities have long faced challenges in accessing job opportunities and employment; many of us cannot even imagine the obstacles that exist. I’ve always found it not only an imperative as an HR professional to ensure opportunities exist but also personally believe that we should do all we can to have a level playing field.  A few years ago I was proud to spearhead an initiative with my local SHRM Chapter (Greater Baton Rouge SHRM) that included developing partnerships with the US Business Leadership Network’s Louisiana chapter (LBLN) and local/state-wide organizations that worked to provide education and access to individuals with disabilities.  We won a SHRM Pinnacle Award for this initiative in 2008 and the partnership assisted LBLN in that they were awarded the BLN Chapter of the Year award.  We called the program ‘Focus on Abilities’ in order to grow understanding of the valuable abilities that all people can bring to the workplace and we started the program in order to strengthen the partnership that was entered into between SHRM and the US DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.  ODEP is a great resource for employers by the way; specifically check out the Job Accommodation Network.

I’ve found that job seekers who require accommodations are hesitant to bring up their disability or accommodation needs until they absolutely must. This may occur at the post-offer stage or even, in some situations, once they walk in the door on day 1 of the job and start completing all their new-hire paperwork.  Quite frankly, in many situations, they’ve previously felt the sting of bias and, dare I say, discrimination. “How will she answer the phone with her hearing loss?” or “How can he manage to get around the building when he’s missing a limb?” are just a few (a few!) of the boneheaded comments I’ve heard from hiring managers and HR professionals over the years.  Yes…HR professionals.  Is it any wonder that candidates are afraid to request an accommodation before they have an offer in hand?

This remains an issue because even though it’s been more than twenty years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) individuals with disabilities continue to have an unemployment rate of 14.7%; almost double the rate for people without disabilities.   Individuals who have faced barriers to employment are simply afraid that they will continue to run into those barriers at every step so they wait until an employer proves to them – actions, not words – that they truly have an inclusive work environment.

Although it’s been a few years since I’ve worked for a contractor with AAP obligations (and thus haven’t had to develop, write and implement an affirmative action plan for some time) I’ve long been an advocate of doing the right thing as both a member of the human race and as a business professional. There are some though who refuse to take action unless the government steps in and says they must; thus, the plethora of rules, directive and regulations that come our way.  There’s one such change around the corner however (effective date of March 24, 2014) when federal contractors/subcontractors of the US government will be required to take enhanced affirmative action under both VEVRAAA  (Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Act of 1974) and Section 503 (Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973).   Among other things, the disability rule updates state:

  • Contractors will now have a 7% utilization goal for qualified individuals with disabilities (IWDs).  Contractors must apply the goal using the established job groups that they’re already using for their utilization analysis under Executive Order 11246
  • Contractors must invite applicants to self identify as IWDs at both the pre-offer and post-offer phases of the application process
  • Contractors must document and update annually some quantitative comparisons for the number of IWDs who apply for jobs and the number hired

You can click here for a complete recap of the Final Rule for Section 503.

Contractors are understandably a bit concerned with the new responsibilities and requirements; it’s never fun to have more work to do along with additional record keeping requirements.  But I’ve long been a believer that businesses should follow some of these practices whether they’re a contractor or not and any thinking HR professional understands it’s always been good practice to keep an eye on utilization and continuously make sure the job application process is open, inclusive, accessible and attractive to ALL candidates.

Rather than view these new rules as an impediment to running one’s HR function I encourage HR professionals and organizational leaders to approach them with the intent of making real meaningful progress in the area of disability employment.  In addition, these changes provide an exceptional opportunity to educate hiring managers, employees and other stakeholders.

Companies that want to hire the best and brightest and promote a workplace culture of inclusion, transparency and opportunity should wholeheartedly adopt the spirit and goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADAAA) and Section 503 and move beyond merely doing “what needs to be done.”

Do what can be done and focus on the abilities.  Of everyone.


As part of the Focus on Abilities program we developed “A Resource Guide for Recruiting, Hiring and Retaining People with different Abilities.”   You can access the guide here.

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