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Expanding Employment Opportunities for People With Disabilities

5 Mins read

As a small business keen to attract a wider workforce talent pool, consider ramping up efforts specifically to hire people with disabilities.

Of course, you may already have an inclusive workforce and be seeking to broaden and widen opportunities for staff with disabilities to boost retention. A more diverse and inclusive workforce pays off in multiple ways.

Here are five actions small business owners and managers can take to increase employment opportunities for employees with disabilities. These tips will also help make the workplace easier to navigate for current employees with disabilities.

1. Create a more inclusive culture and accessible workplace

Even if you believe your workplace is inclusive and accessible, there’s always room for improvement. Can you be sure that every employee feels safe, valued, and supported to communicate their concerns and put forward ideas in your workplace?

As a hypothetical example, despite an employee named Pat being dyslexic, he’s managed to obtain three college degrees scoring top marks. In his building inspector role for a government authority, his written reports are full of typos and grammatical errors that spell-checking apps don’t pick up.

Pat doesn’t feel comfortable disclosing his learning disability to his co-workers or manager. However, he continues with his valuable technical expertise, putting in extra hours, but still faces harsh criticism. If his workplace was more inclusive, he might feel it’s safe to talk about dyslexia and ask for support.

This sort of treatment sends a message to other staff that differences aren’t tolerated and certain employees may not feel like they belong.

This is an example of an invisible disability, but what about staff with more obvious types?

A safe and inclusive work culture embraces all types of disability and aims not to discriminate. Such a workplace is open to change and encourages a diversity of thought and abilities. Managers listen first, then discuss solutions and support.

Everyone has different lived experiences, so consider how your organization can encourage them to be their whole self at work.

Set the standard with your own transparency, candor, kindness, and respect.

2. Discuss and offer reasonable accommodations


Your small business may not have been set up using Universal Design best practices. That approach sees environments or products designed for everyone without retrofitted adaptions or specialized design. Accessibility goes beyond compliance with standards. For example, you might need to find out what the transport-to-and-from-work needs are for your staff members with a disability.

Reasonable accommodations are adjustments or modifications to a work environment or role that allow a qualified person with a disability to perform the work whether they’re part-time, full-time, or even doing a trial. Employers need to provide reasonable accommodations unless it would cause them ‘undue hardship’.  That’s the law, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Importantly, staff can ask for these at any time, and don’t have to use the phrase ‘reasonable accommodation.’

Here are some examples from the official Employer.gov website:

  • Change work schedules to let staff work flexibly. This includes hours or location
  • Physically modifying the workplace to include an adjustable desk, wheelchair ramp, or an accessible restroom
  • Agreeing to a job restructure, such as reassigning non-essential tasks to other roles.

Assistive technologies for people with disabilities include message boards, screen readers, refreshable Braille displayers, keyboard and mouse modifications, and head pointers.

On average, six out of 10 accommodations cost nothing and the rest cost about $500, says the Department of Labor-funded Job Accommodation Network. That network offers employers free and confidential advice and practical guidance on accommodation solutions, process strategies, and relevant laws. The department’s goal is for apprentices with a disability to comprise at least 7% of our country’s apprentices overall.

3. Provide training and development opportunities

Include existing staff with a disability in skills audits your business conducts. What extra skills, attributes, hobbies/interests are they nurturing that might be useful in the workplace, or which may be rusty and need refreshing for their role(s)?

When identifying individual skills gaps, think whether your in-house experts could be harnessed as mentors. Existing staff who have disabilities could have valuable feedback to improve your induction, and other work processes.

As well, ensure you have input from people with a disability on your strategies, policies and processes covering:

  • Professional development
  • Advancement, and
  • Performance management.

Are documents inadvertently creating blocks for people with a disability, perhaps even lowering expectations for them? Create these key business documents with them, not necessarily just for them.

For would-be staff, consider setting up a registered apprenticeship program to expand opportunities for people with a disability. A Department of Labor study has found these programs help build your talent program, boost company culture and engagement, develop future managers, reduce turnover, as well as save on what it would cost to hire and fill a skilled labor role. The study shows that for every $1 a business invests in a registered apprentice the return is $1.44.

4. Tap into existing resources and financial incentives

Don’t reinvent the wheel – there are plenty of resources and financial incentives to hire and retain staff with disabilities.  For instance, the IRS offers a Disabled Access Credit, Barrier Removal Tax Deduction and Work Opportunity Tax Credit to employers of people with disabilities.

Since late 2020, the Partnership for Inclusive Apprenticeships (PIA) has worked with employers and apprenticeship intermediaries. It creates opportunities to help people with a disability establish meaningful and well-paid careers. The PIA also connects businesses with resources, such as the Apprenticeship Equal Opportunity Toolkit. Apprentice group intermediaries can save time to find resources, advice, and financial incentives.

You’ll find more resources in the dot points, below.

5. Partner with advocacy groups, non-profits, agencies, and organizations that work with people with disabilities in your region

It’s difficult to generalize about the needs of people with a particular type of disability, let alone about the complexity of just one person with that disability.

Take Down Syndrome, for example. A McKinsey report has identified two barriers to employment that people with Down Syndrome experience. These may include the need for more monitoring, compared to staff with other disability types. Also, existing employees might not know how to approach working with people with Down Syndrome.

But, many benefits balance these issues. McKinsey says workplaces that include people with Down Syndrome have a positive impact on organizational health. These plusses range from leadership, culture and climate, motivation of all staff, and greater customer satisfaction.

The Kansas-based Down Syndrome Innovations (DSI) develops workforce programs for people with disabilities. Like many advocacy groups, DSI offers pre-employment training and coaching to bridge the gap from school to the workforce.

DSI also runs small-scale paid apprenticeship programs in customer service and warehouse and packaging with host employers in the community. While participants may not be in community-integrated, or open employment yet, such apprenticeship programs are a great first step.

The organization works with local industry to tailor its employment programs, with help from a group apprentice intermediary and the state apprenticeship office.

Get a sense of how businesses forge partnerships for inclusion. Check out the:

Where to next?

Find out more about what’s involved in hiring and employing people with a disability for your organization and how registered apprenticeship programs can be a great fit. IWSI America’s Ready, Willing and ABLE guide has been updated recently.

A safe and inclusive work culture embraces all types of disability and aims not to discriminate. Such a workplace is open to change and encourages a diversity of thought. Managers listen first, then discuss solutions and support.

Nicholas Wyman is the President of IWSI America | X: @nicholas_wyman

Worker stock image by Pressmaster/Shutterstock

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