By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

This month marks National Disability Employment Awareness Month – and the US Department of Labor has revealed some sobering numbers. According to the DoL, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is almost twice the unemployment rate of those without them (16.1% v. 8.8% in August of this year).

It’s unfortunate that employers seem to be ignoring this valuable segment of the workforce for several reasons. According to Barbara Otto, Executive Director of Health & Disability Advocates at the National Consortium for Health Systems Development, hiring a person with disabilities may benefit companies more than they know.

Otto is part of the team behind Think Beyond the Label, a partnership of health and human service and employment agencies working to unify information and services around hiring individuals with disabilities. “We asked ‘how do we effectively engage employers to speak with one voice and provided targeted information?’”

The problem, she said, was that much of the information available to employers about the benefits of hiring people with disabilities was conflicting – or simply incorrect. With TBTL, employers can access accurate federal and state information on the benefits and tax credits available to them, and more.

According to Otto, companies may be missing out on thousands of dollars in tax credits – as well as the trillion dollar market segment made up of people with disabilities and their families.

Financial Benefits

Think Beyond the Label has also just launched a Return on Investment calculator (called the Hire Gauge) that companies – big and small – can use to measure the financial benefits of hiring a person with disabilities.

“One of the things we tried to focus on with the Hire Gauge was the real financial advantages of hiring people with disabilities – especially for large companies,” Otto said.

Those benefits include state and federal tax credits and reimbursement opportunities for architectural changes. The Hire Gauge also links to the appropriate forms, with detailed instructions.

Plus, she continued, being known as an employer of choice for people with disabilities can help companies tap into a huge market segment worth one trillion dollars. “People with disabilities and their families are very loyal – and they like to vote with their dollars,” she continued. “The value of building loyalty within this market base should not be understated.”

Additionally, she said, the population at large is much more sympathetic to companies that hire people with disabilities. “92% of the American public views companies that hire people with disabilities more favorably. And 87% would prefer to give business to companies that hire people with disabilities.”

Finally, companies may get a boost when it comes to winning federal contracts. “Twenty-five percent of our workforce is paid for through some federal contract. There are a lot of changes coming down the pike when it comes to compliance for employers.”

Finally, hiring people with disabilities can provide a competitive advantage as well. Tim Springer, CEO of SSB BART Group, said that his company has hired technologists with disabilities since the company was founded in 1998. “As a technology firm that works with multi-national organizations and governments across the world to assure that Internet, Communications and Technology is fully accessible, it makes more sense for us to hire and retain technologists with disabilities. We have found that it allows us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors that do not understand the value of including people with disabilities in their workforce.”

Operational Benefits

Additionally, companies that make environmental changes to accommodate employees with disabilities frequently save money in productivity for all employees.

Otto said, “Operationally, a lot of large companies, Walgreens for example, have implemented accommodations that have improved efficiency and the productivity of the entire workforce.”

“Universal design is actually extremely useful to the entire workforce.” For example, implementing touch screens with larger icons makes them easier for everyone to see and use.

She added that Walgreens saw teams become stronger and communication improve when they included someone with a disability.

“Many other companies – like Ernst & Young – have spoken publicly about the benefits of hiring individuals with disabilities,” she continued. Including the benefits of innovation afforded by diversity, “the physical environment often advances the objectives of all employees in the workforce.”

Debra Ruh, CMO of SSB BART Group and Founder and CEO of TecAccess, a firm that connects technology companies with qualified disabled individuals, agreed. She said that hiring people with disabilities can provide an innovation boost to the companies that hire them. She explained, “It also allows us to have team members that think ‘out-side-the-box’ because the ‘box’ isn’t always made for people with disabilities. Many of our employees with disabilities have worked for our firm for many years and they are as productive, creative and innovative as other team members. We are proud of our diverse team members and we feel that we are a better company because of our team.”

Ruh added that hiring people with disabilities should be seen as a talent management decision. She explained, “I only hire people with disabilities when they were qualified to do the job and only kept them if they performed. We were happy to accommodate the team because retaining our talented staff was paramount to our success.”