How False Stereotypes About People With Disabilities Hold Employers Back


More than 25 years after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), physical architecture and some educational opportunities thankfully have changed, but many negative attitudes and stigmas about people with disabilities have not. Indeed, a major Princeton study shows that while people with disabilities are seen as warm, they are not seen as competent.

Meanwhile, a study published by Cornell Hospitality Quarterly analyzed results from a survey of employers at 320 hospitality companies in the United States. It found that all the companies share a concern that those with disabilities could not do the work required of their employees. Another top concern was the potential cost of unspecified accommodations they might need to provide for a person with a disability under the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act. This is despite the fact that most such accommodations are not exceptionally costly.

There is also evidence that employers fear legal action should they terminate an employee with a disability. It is far more difficult to prove discrimination for not being hired in the first place. So, given the perception that people with disabilities aren’t competent, and could potentially be costly, why would an employer take the risk of hiring them?

One of the employers who took the “risk” was Randy Lewis, former Vice President of Walgreens and Fortune 50 executive, who led Walgreens’ logistics division for sixteen years, as the chain grew from 1,500 to 8,000 stores. Randy introduced an inclusive model of hiring people with disabilities at Walgreens’ distribution centers that resulted in 10 percent of its workforce consisting of people with disabilities — all of whom are held to the same standards as their colleagues without disabilities.

The outcome? Study after study turned out to be myth-busters. The employees with disabilities were more productive and loyal than their non-disabled peers! And most accommodations? Either free or cheap. But even when the relatively few more expensive accommodations were factored in, the overall costs of accommodations were far outweighed by the low turnover rates and better tenures of the employees with disabilities. Grateful for opportunities, and in many cases thriving on repetitive tasks, they are so loyal to Walgreens that recruitment costs were saved as the employees continued to stay in their jobs and deliver excellent results. You can learn more about this in Randy’s new book or on the Walgreens website.

Other companies such as Ernst and Young (EY), have also found inclusive hiring to be a winning ticket. Starting with its founder, Arthur Young, EY has always embraced differing abilities. Trained as a lawyer, Arthur was deaf with low vision and he wasn’t able to comfortably practice. He turned to finance and the new field of accounting to build his career. His disability drove him to innovation and entrepreneurship, which played a pivotal role in the development of EY. Finding and engaging diverse talents has been a key part of EY’s ongoing success.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “David and Goliath,” extols the strength of people with disabilities. Because traditional ways of doing things don’t always work for people with disabilities, Gladwell demonstrates that they compensate for that in ways that benefit the workforce by developing incredible ways to innovate and succeed.

AMC Theaters, Lowe’s, many grocery stores and others are also getting outstanding results by hiring employees with disabilities. So what are other employers waiting for? They are still blinded by negative stereotypes. It’s time for people with disabilities to be seen for what they can do, and not for what they cannot. What can people with disabilities do? Think about it.

Beautiful music from a deaf man? It happened. Ludwig von Beethoven.

World changing words from someone with dyslexia? It happened. Thomas Jefferson.

A Super bowl champion NFL player who is deaf? It happened. Derrick Coleman.

A Nobel Prize for a scientist who failed in school? It happened. Albert Einstein.

Secrets of the universe being revealed by a man who uses a wheelchair and who can no longer speak? It’s happening. Stephen Hawking.

It’s time to change the narrative of how we see people with disabilities, so employers can see the abilities they have and the positive impact on their business’s bottom line. It’s amazing that such a small change can have such a big impact. It can — if it is done in a focused and strategic way. Employing people with disabilities may take a little more forethought and planning. The U.S. government recently changed their expectations of federal contractors who now must become at least partially inclusive of hiring people with disabilities. There are many groups that can help in the process including Business Leadership Network, Project Search, National Organization on Disability and others.

As the Baby Boomers continue to age, a powerful answer to labor and talent shortages already exists in our own backyards — our own family members and neighbors with disabilities who want to work.

Recognize the disability. Imagine the possibility. Respect the ability.

Learn more at RespectAbility USA.


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