By Michael Rock

Despite the centrality of meaningful employment to thrive in our society, people with disabilities experience various obstacles to contributing their talents to the workforce. At about 20% of the population, people with disabilities are the largest marginalized group in the United States. Despite their size and diversity, they still experience significantly higher rates of unemployment and underemployment than the general population. As of November 2018, 21.1% of Americans with disabilities participate in the workforce, with 7.7% unemployed completely. In contrast, 68.4% of those without disabilities are involved in the labor force, and only 3.3% are unemployed.F

Numerous factors play a role in the high rates of unemployment for people with disabilities. Though the majority of businesses accommodate employees with disabilities, a University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability survey found that only 28 percent of companies throughout the United States make hiring people with disabilities a priority.

In addition, stigma about disability, and particularly developmental disability, can impede the efforts of people with disabilities to find and keep employment. Many employers mistakenly believe that the accommodations applicants with disabilities may need to thrive in the workforce are costly and burdensome to their businesses. In reality, most such supports are relatively small and rarely cost more than fifty dollars, if anything.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives are central to addressing the unemployment rate of Americans with disabilities. This is especially true of jobseekers that have social and communicative deficits, such as those with autism. Even though many have unique skills and talents that may be unusual among people who do not have autism, their challenges can make acing an interview extremely difficult.

Recognizing these challenges, many companies, most notably in the technology industry, have altered their hiring processes to better address the needs of applicants with disabilities. For example, software giant Microsoft has allowed job applicants with relevant disabilities to waive an interview in favor of assignments that asses their talents and exercises designed to foster teamwork with potential colleagues.

SAP developed a similar initiative several years ago called the Autism at Work Program.  As of February 2018, the company hired 128 people with autism and hopes to hire more than 600. The program includes training for five weeks, which includes social skills practice. So far, SAP’s retention rate for employees on the spectrum is 90%.

IBM also makes hiring people with disabilities a top priority, going so far as to mandate all employees undergo disability awareness training.

Major companies outside of technology that have made hiring people with disabilities a priority include Procter & Gamble, Ernst and Young, Aetna, Walgreen’s, Starbucks, UPS, and Pepsi.

Other more local institutions that have made hiring people with developmental disabilities a priority include Alabama’s Huntsville Hospital via its Project SEARCH initiative, inviting older students from the city’s public school system with such challenges to intern in various parts of the hospital, such as the cafeteria. Sometimes the program leads to full-time employment.

Meanwhile, the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego offers “Hands On @ Hyatt,” a hands-on two-week job training program that focuses on culinary arts. Participants get 100 hours of paid training alongside professional chefs.

Similarly, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan in New York City offers the “Just One Job” program, which covers a wide variety of aspects of finding and keeping employment for the highly-independent young adults with learning and developmental challenges. The program’s offerings include professional and social skills assessments, group talks on resume and cover letter writing, deficit and stress management, interview preparation, networking opportunities, and six-month internships at organizations the center has partnered with.

Efforts to reduce the unemployment rate among people with disabilities are not just a private sector effort. A number of state governors across the political spectrum have also made addressing it a priority. In Alaska, Independent Bill Walker has expanded Project SEARCH to his state, while Brian Sandoval, a Nevada Republican, has partnered with major companies such as Starbucks and Pepsi to develop new ways to employ people with disabilities. At the same time, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, a Democrat, has developed a number of legal initiatives to help increase employment among those with disabilities.

Even with such factors in place, there are other priorities all employers interested in hiring people with disabilities should make. These can include efforts to be aware of and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as relevant state and local regulations, proactive recruitment of people with disabilities, expediting of accommodations and supports for employees with disabilities, and establishing a company culture that is not hostile to such employees.

Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.