With just over one-quarter (26.3 percent) of working-age (16-64) people with disabilities participating in the workforce versus 71.9 percent of working-age people without disabilities, revisions to the regulations for Section 503 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act intended to reduce the disparity went into effect last March.
These changes impact federal contractors in a major way and are designed to improve employment outcomes for employees with disabilities. A key revision recommends contractors have a target of 7 percent of their workforce being employees with disabilities. The goal is to make management more aware of employing disabled workers and to provide some accountability.
Contractors are required to maintain records of the people with disabilities who apply for jobs as well as those already in the workforce. Another requirement is for contractors to encourage applicants and existing employees to voluntarily self-identify a disability.
The changes to Section 503, though only recommendations at this point, are a wake-up call to organizations on how they deal with workers who are disabled, says Peter Rutigliano, vice president and senior consultant at Sirota Consulting.
“It would behoove organizations to use it as an opportunity to review policies relating to the disabled and doing more to identify employees with disabilities,” he said.
Those employees frequently are overlooked within companies, he said, citing research that shows only about one-third of organizations have a support program for employees with disabilities. A 2012 study he and colleagues conducted found only 4 percent of companies performing engagement surveys included disability as a demographic component.
“I don’t think companies are purposely ignoring employees with disabilities; mostly it’s a case of omission,” Rutigliano said.
Employees Are Unaware about Programs
Susanne Bruyère, a professor of disability studies and director of the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University, said research she and colleagues conducted showed the effectiveness of disability policies and practices may be hindered by employees’ lack of awareness or knowledge about their existence.
“Often, companies have a desire to do right by their employees, but are concerned about being overly intrusive around disability status and thereby possibly risking litigation regarding perceived employment discrimination. As a result, many have not previously made disability-specific changes in their policies and practices, including disability in diversity initiatives,” she said.
While most organizations have diversity initiatives, they primarily are focused on gender and ethnicity issues, Rutigliano said. “Organizations need to pay more attention to employees with disabilities (EWD), and the 503 Section recommendations is having that effect. I’m starting to see companies take notice to the disparities that exist with EWDs and it is resulting in more conversation,” he added.
His research found employees with disabilities have more negative attitudes toward their jobs than non-disabled employees and are less engaged and committed. Also, they found employees with disabilities felt significantly disconnected to senior leadership and the company overall, but were more comfortable with their local work environment.
“The message there is that senior leadership needs to be more involved with disabled employees. It would provide them an enlightened view and help change the mindset of the organization,” Rutigliano said.
He suggested that organizations have a staff member to champion and represent those with disabilities. “That would go a long way to improve things for them,” he added.
Identifying Employees with Disabilities
One challenge facing employers wanting to meet Section 503’s 7 percent recommendation is identifying employees considered to be disabled.
“Those numbers have to be reported to the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP). To meet that goal encouraging employees to disclose disabilities is critical,” said Bruyère. “Yet, disclosing a disability is a personal decision with far-reaching consequences for both the applicant/employee and employer.”
While some disabilities are apparent, such as workers in wheelchairs or those who use a walker or cane, many are not. In fact, employers often are not aware that some employees have impairments. Some of the more common non-visible disabilities include arthritis, asthma, cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, hearing loss, learning disabilities, low vision, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain or fatigue, according to the Employer Assistance and Resource Network.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) describes a person with a disability as one who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities and has a record of such an impairment.
“But when it comes to identifying specific disabilities, the ADA is vague. There are many that qualify as disabilities,” Rutigliano said. For example, obesity can be considered a disability if it is a condition that can impact work.
Research Bruyère conducted with Cornell colleague Lisa Nishii has involved in-depth case studies in both federal and private sector workplaces, surveying more than 8,000 individuals. Results show that many more individuals identify themselves as a person with a disability in such anonymous surveys than in formal employer systems. So, it is likely that organizations have more disabled employees than they thought.
Results also show that many more individuals disclose their disability to a supervisor (67 percent) or co-workers (64 percent), than to human resources (43 percent), which Bruyère says is problematic from an employer’s perspective as “organizations rely on disclosure to HR through formal systems in order to be able to accurately report the representation of persons with disabilities within its labor force.”
Employees Fear Backlash from Disclosure
A separate but related study Bruyere conducted with Cornell University colleague Sarah von Schrader showed that individuals who did not disclose their disability or request an accommodation were concerned about the negative consequences and the possibility their employer would focus more on their disability than their ability and the fear that future opportunities might be limited.
As expected, in both studies, the researchers found that disclosure experiences were more positive when those with disabilities worked in a unit they felt was more inclusive and had a manager who was understanding and supportive of workers with disabilities.
“Informed employers are already dealing with disability issues and we have found that many of them are accommodating employees with and without disabilities all of the time,” Bruyère said. “Many times employers do not think of a person as disabled and they are already accommodating him or her whether the disability is the result of an accident, injury or illness. They know the employee needs some accommodation, but they do not necessarily consider the employee as disabled.”
She added that some employees may not need special accommodations, including those with diabetes or arthritis or even vision or hearing problems. “Often, these are thought of as issues the employee deals with on a daily basis and may not significantly impact his or her ability to do their work responsibilities,” she said.
Under the ADA, employees can ask for workplace accommodations, like taking an extra break if they feel they are dealing with fatigue issues, asking for a stool to sit on if their job requires them to stand – such as a cashier in a business – or requesting time off for treatment or to go to a doctor’s office, or accommodations to take an insulin shot.
“These usually do not cost employers much and many realize a flexible and welcoming workplace attracts people and makes for a more productive workforce,” said Bruyère. “Perhaps the most important aspect of developing a workplace environment where employees with disabilities are comfortable is trust. To generate that trust, employers must communicate to employers their willingness to be flexible when it comes to health issues.”
Also, the supervisor should be afforded sufficient information and training to feel comfortable enough to ask an employee if something is amiss when they observe performance issues, without fear of being vulnerable to a discrimination charge.
Bruyère said training should be considered by organizations to help employers and supervisors create an environment where people see a reason for and are comfortable to disclose their disabilities.
“For example, pictures of disabled persons being productive can be used in company diversity statements and recruiting literature. This sends the message that the organization values diversity including individuals with disabilities,” Bruyère said.
Bruyère said research results emphasize the importance of employer practice, workplace climate, and, in particular, the supervisor-employee relationship: “With an aging workforce and federal initiatives encouraging the hiring and retention of individuals with disabilities, employers increasingly need to be active in creating an environment where workers feel comfortable disclosing their disability.”