Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Customized Employment: Making the Business Case-Part II

Editors Note: A little more than one year ago, I posted an article entitled Customized Employment: Making the Business Case. The point of this article was that customized employment makes very good business sense and the time has come for employers to consider hiring the abilities of adults with significant disabilities. Recently, I read an article published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation entitled A national survey of consumer attitudes towards companies that hire people with disabilities. This national study, conducted by the Gallup Poll in association with the University of Massachusetts and America’s Strength Foundation in Maryland, offers new support in making the "business case" as to why employers should hire people with disabilities. The article below identifies some of the study’s interesting findings and its implications for businesses who choose to hire people with disabilities.
Whenever we examine the core reasons behind the high unemployment rate of Americans with significant disabilities (estimated to be 65-70% nationally), the negative attitudes and fears of businesses are inevitably identified as major barriers. We hear that some employers worry that people with significant disabilities won’t fit in with their workforce culture. Others worry that workers with disabilities are too time consuming to train and supervise. Many employers don’t know where to go to recruit people with disabilities or feel they don’t have the expertise to support an employee with a significant disability. Some businesses identify concerns about job safety and express worries that their company insurance rates will climb.
Sometimes we hear general concerns about the reliability, productivity, or flexibility of workers with disabilities. Other business leaders are worried about making costly changes to their physical buildings, work environment, or task processes to accommodate someone with a disability. Still others express concerns about the need to extend special privileges for some workers and how such accommodations will be perceived by their co-workers.
This blog is dedicated to dispelling many of these myths and sharing how customized and supported employment can provide the right information and technical assistance that employers need to hire, train, and support a job candidate with complex disabilities. Although employers tend to say all of the right things about hiring people with disabilities, the high unemployment rate of Americans with significant disabilities continues. And despite the growing availability of technical assistance for interested employers, the unemployment gap between adults of working age with and without disabilities remains unacceptably high.
Recently I read with great interest an article published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation that I thought was worthy of sharing. The journal article was entitled A national survey of consumer attitudes towards companies that hire people with disabilities (Gary N. Siperstein, Neil Romano, Amanda Mohler, and Robin Parker, Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 24, 2006, pages 3-9, IOS Press). This study was conducted by the Gallup Organization with technical support from the University of Massachusetts and America’s Strength Foundation.
What is interesting about this research is that the authors surveyed the attitudes and opinions of the American consumer. The study was designed to measure what the American buying public thinks about companies who hire people with disabilities. Further, it examined the personal experiences of respondents who had direct contact and associations with workers who have disabilities as both co-workers and/or consumers.
Since businesses and industries spend billions of dollars studying and trying to understand the attitudes and behavior of American consumers, the authors of this research thought it would be instructive to survey the opinions of consumers and assess their experiences with people with disabilities in the workforce. The authors of the research put it this way:
"The question that remains is how do we get employers to act on what they know is morally right and more importantly, recognize the value of employing people with disabilities. In short, how do we motivate businesses to hire people with disabilities? The answer to this question may hinge upon the consumer. Companies value consumers’ opinions and view them as a viable factor in determining their business practices..." (page 4).
This national survey was conducted via telephone with a randomly selected pool of respondents. A survey instrument was designed by the researchers to gauge attitudes and experiences as reported by consumers. The researchers used a strategy that did not reveal the intended purpose of the research in order to objectively assess attitudes about companies who hire people with disabilities. For example, the survey instrument asked for opinions on a range of social issues and practices (i.e., environmental issues) so as to avoid leading or biasing individual responses about disability employment issues. The key study questions were imbedded within a broader sequence of inquiries so researchers could better understand and establish the relative importance of disability issues in relation to other social causes important to American consumers.
A Lickert style rating scale was used so the researchers could examine the relative strength of each participant’s responses. For example, respondents who had worked in a company that employed someone with a disability, were asked to rate their observations on a five-point scale from doing "a very good job" to "a very poor job." If surveyed participants had direct experiences as consumers, they were asked to rate the overall product or service experience on a five-point scale ranging from "very satisfied" to "very unsatisfied." The researchers also asked participants six specific questions about their perceptions of companies who hire people with disabilities using a five-point rating scale ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree."
So what did the surveyed consumers have to say? Well, let’s take a look at some of the study’s key findings...
  • 75% of all respondents said that they had worked directly with someone who had a disability and/or had received services as a consumer by a person with a disability.
  • Of those who reported having a direct experience, 91% said the job performance of the worker with a disability was "very good" or "good."
  • 98% of all respondents who had been served by someone with a disability said they were "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with the services they received.
  • 92% of all respondents reported they held a "more favorable" or "much more favorable" opinion about companies who hire people with disabilities.
  • 83% of all respondents believe companies do not take advantage of people with disabilities, nor do people with disabilities create a problem in the workforce.
  • 96% of all respondents shared in a belief that companies who hire people with disabilities help these individuals to live more productive lives.
  • 87% of all respondents said they would prefer to give their business to companies who hire people with disabilities with one-third "strongly agreeing" with this statement.
In the broad menu of social causes placed in front of American consumers surveyed, "hiring people with disabilities" came in behind only "offering health insurance to all workers" and "helping to protect the environment" in terms of relative importance. "Hiring people with disabilities" even edged out "Supporting a cause you care about" in the matrix of social responsibilities! In summary, the American consumer overwhelmingly supports the idea of companies hiring people with disabilities. Further, they prefer to give these companies their business because it’s the right thing to do.
The fundamental value of this study is critically important to people with disabilities as well as those who represent them in finding jobs in the workforce. Of course, businesses are looking for business reasons to recruit their employees. And this national study offers convincing evidence that the American public supports the idea of people with disabilities working in integrated jobs alongside their peers. When given a choice, the study also reveals that consumers prefer to give their business to companies who give employees with disabilities a chance.
This past week, I hosted a tour of eight job sites in the Twin Cities’ workforce for two of my colleagues from Coastal Center for Developmental Services (CCDS) in Savannah, Georgia. Lauri Dworzak, CCDS’ Community Employment Director, and Cindy Burns, CCDS’ Marketing and Job Placement Specialist, visited the Twin Cities to learn more about strategies we use at Rise to customize jobs and establish partnerships with business leaders. During our tour, we stopped to visit with a team of business leaders from Cummins, Inc. in Fridley, Minnesota. Recently, I wrote about Cummins and their progressive business practices in support of a worker with a significant disability in an article called Customizing a Niche in the Workforce.
The group of us sat down for a face-to-face chat with Cummin’s managers to better understand the details that went into creating a customized job for "Bill," a middle-aged man who lives with a serious mental illness. Larry Buroker manages the department where Bill works at Cummins and he shared something with our group that sticks with me a week later. He was asked about why he was willing to go the extra mile to develop a customized job for Bill. Buroker made it clear he had made a solid business decision and that all tasks assigned to Bill helped Cummins to achieve its overall production and sales goals. As to the issue of whether or not it was an inconvenience for him, Buroker went on to say this:
"Some people might look at this and say it was extra work that went into the job. Well I say-- It is the job."
Wow! I have nothing else to add to Mr. Buroker's uncommon wisdom.

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