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Disability Awareness Month: Q&A with EEOC

What Companies Need to Know...

In case you missed it, October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in the United States. However, you may not have noticed due to several other monthly observances nationwide.

NDEAM is sponsored annually in October by the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, which says the observance dates back to 1945.

Disability employment is a persistent problem in the modern workplace, despite broad efforts by
the federal government and disability rights groups to promote
voluntary compliance with the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act
(ADA).

The “employment population ratio” for people without disabilities  was
more than triple that for  people with disabilities in 2017,
according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One might think more progress had been made by now, nearly 30-years after the ADA’s enactment. But disability discrimination is still a pervasive problem in the employment context, despite incremental gains over the decades.

I recently spoke with Christopher J. Kuczynski. Chris is the Assistant Legal Counsel for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and heads the ADA/GINA Policy Division within the agency’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Employers nationwide would be wise to pay close attention to what Chris has to say in order to foster discrimination-free work environments based on talent, merit and ability to do the job (for people with or without a disability).

Companies of all sizes should consider this:

People
with disabilities represent a vast pool of untapped talent in a domestic labor force where  the unemployment rate is
nearing historic lows.

My (DG) conversation with Chris (CK) — presented in a Question & Answer (Q&A) format below — covers the following disability employment issues:

  • Workforce Diversity & Disability.
  • Disability Population & Employment.
  • Reasonable Accommodation.
  • Leadership from the Top.
  • Myths, Fears & Stereotypes.
  • Accessibility & Technology.
  • EEOC Enforcement, Training & Outreach.
  • Genetic Discrimination in the Workplace.

Diversity & Disability

1.DG: Can you explain the importance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month and why companies should pay attention?

  • CK: One
    of the things I have emphasized is that disability should be part of
    the model of diversity that is so important in the workplaces of America
    today.
  • I don’t think disability has become fully incorporated into the notion of diversity, in which disability is seen as a real positive value in the workplace. A month like this is an opportunity to remind people of why it should be.

2. DG: When we talk about disability awareness do you think most employers still don’t get it regarding why disability employment is important?

  • CK:
    Even though disability is still an issue for companies 28-years after
    passage of the ADA, I think more employers are aware of it in ways they
    have certainly not been prior to the ADA. Disability has become a larger part of the modern business model.

“One of the things that may still be a struggle for employers of any size is the concept of reasonable accommodation. Some
employers may have concerns about the cost of accommodations, although
studies show this cost is not great.”

Accommodations

3. DG: According to a well cited study by Cornell University, the cost of accommodating an employee with a disability is only $500 on average — and the ROI is much higher per productivity gains. Do employers know that?

  • CK:
    The studies are out there and available to employers. I think many
    large employers are familiar with the $500 figure. However, in addition
    to dollars and cents costs, companies
    might also be thinking about how difficult or disruptive the
    accommodation process could be to the operation of their business.
  • Reasonable accommodation requires employers to do things differently from the way in which they would normally do them, in order to provide equal employment opportunities.

“Reasonable
accommodation is something employers may grapple with because it
requires a response to individualized needs that people with
disabilities may have.” 

4. DG: Do enough employers know the rules, regulations and responsibilities involved in providing reasonable accommodations, nearly three decades after ADA?
  • CK:
    I think many employers do know about the ADA’s rules and regulations,
    but certainly there are some that don’t. There are any number of
    resources available for companies where they can learn more, including
    our website www.eeoc.gov.

“The
EEOC regularly provides the business community with Technical
Assistance Program Seminars, information updates on our web site and
other outreach.” 

  • Sometimes it’s not so much that employers don’t know how to comply with the ADA — or even have policies in place — but there could be problems in communicating those policies so they’re filtering down to supervisory officials who must make day-to-day decisions about accommodations.

“A reasonable accommodation is just a simple request for a change that’s needed because of a medical condition.”

CEO Leadership

5. DG: How important is it in corporate America for CEOs to communicate the message that workforce diversity includes people with disabilities, rather than only the HR department or just putting information in employee handbooks?

  • CK: It’s critically important for the message to filter down from the very top of the organization. That’s because even the best workforce may not be committed to any type of project until employees believe executive leaders and managers are committed to it. This includes disability hiring and diversity.

“What
leadership from the top should also mean is that it becomes part of the
accountability for managers and front-line supervisors.” 

  • That is, performance should be assessed in part on whether hiring managers or others within the organization are evaluating diversity when it comes to disability and other protected statuses.
  • Leadership from the top comes with accountability for officials who implement these policies and practices. This includes outreach to the disability community and working closely with advocacy groups to implement and/or revise policies and procedures that make good business sense.

“Some
candidates have all the qualifications that an employer requires,
however, what’s standing in the way is myths, fears and
stereotypes.” 

Myths, Fears, Stereotypes

6. DG: What are some of the specific myths, fears and stereotypes regarding people with disabilities that are still prevalent today in the employer community?

  • CK: It could be as simple as thinking that a person with a disability can’t do the job because the person will be an unproductive employee. There could be fundamental misconceptions, for instance, that a disability translates into an inability to think and work productively.

“There could also be myths, fears and stereotypes by employers about safety in the workplace.” 

  • Some employers still may have negative attitudes and misconceptions related to those with a history of mental health conditions. They may think a person with mental illness automatically means an elevated risk regarding threats of violence in the workplace. But that’s simply wrong.

“The
safety risks associated with mental disabilities are no greater than
those associated with the population generally. Safety concerns also
occur due to some physical conditions, not only mental
impairments.” 

Business Case

7. DG: Can you talk about the business case for disability employment, especially in a tight labor market which we have today in the United States…

  • CK: It’s usually the case that people with disabilities are very reliable, loyal and productive.
    There are studies, for example, that show absenteeism for employees
    with disabilities have been lower than among the general worker
    population. That leads to greater productivity.
  • Some people with disabilities have problem-solving skills that not only result from experience but also from their disability. This equates to effective problem solving for an employer.

“The
benefits include expanding a company’s consumer base, added perspective
in decision making and greater return on investment.”

  • Some segments of the consumer base might also like to see companies assume a leadership role in terms of embracing accessibility to new technology for people with disabilities.

8. DG: According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 60 million people in America— or roughly one in five people — either have or will have a disability at some point in their lives. Anything to add about this?

  • CK: Some
    would say that maybe the number is even greater than that because of
    the ADA’s expanding definition of disability — particularly since the
    law was amended in 2008 — you have a very broad definition of what constitutes a disability today.

“The
60 million number sounds consistent with an upward trend in those
estimates, about 20 million more people compared to when the ADA was
passed in 1990.” 

9. DG: Can you talk about ADA enforcement by the EEOC and how this compares to other EEOC-laws enforced, like Title VII of the sweeping Civil Rights Act which covers multiple bases of discrimination, including race and sex?

“We also provide outreach and technical assistance to employers, which compliments enforcement.”

Genetic Bias

10. DG: Due to new and evolving technology, such as decoding the human genome, is EEOC observing more genetic discrimination in the workplace?

  • CK: The
    Genetic Information Non Discrimination Act of 2008 — or GINA — is the
    most recent of the civil rights law for which the agency has authority.
  • Under GINA, employers cannot discriminate against employees or applicants based on genetic information. This includes family and medical history, as well as genetic testing.
  • We see a small number of employment discrimination cases under GINA compared to the other EEOC-enforced laws. This is not surprising based on when the law was passed and what we were seeing at the state level with similar laws about genetic information.

“The
most common type of issue that comes up under GINA is related to family
and medical history as part of employee medical examinations.”

My Take

As Chris clearly articulates above, it should be obvious by now that disability employment simply makes good business sense for a variety of reasons.

Still, not every employer has gotten the message.

That’s why disability discrimination at work remains a persistent problem 28 years after passage of the ADA and 8-years after passage of the corresponding ADA Amendments Act.

Too
many disability-based myths, fears and stereotypes abound, despite the
business case for fostering workforce diversity—which includes
employees with disabilities.

People with disabilities represent a significant part of the U.S. population, in addition to a large pool of untapped talent for employers in a competitive global marketplace.

All companies need to be aware of disability issues, and not just during National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Employers need to show awareness every day and month of the year.

But is awareness enough?

“While
disability employment awareness is certainly a good thing, employers
also need to take steps to make sure it’s a priority.” – Chris Kuczynski, EEOC

In essence, disability awareness alone is not enough.

The business community should fully embrace proactive prevention, open communication, outreach, education and technical assistance efforts to promote voluntary compliance with the ADA and avoid discrimination.

Disability discrimination may result in EEOC investigations and litigation, in addition to that of private plaintiffs.

This only leads to wasted time, added business costs and negative publicity for employers — all of which can damage the brand image, while jeopardizing bottom line productivity and profits.

More companies need to increase their efforts to make disability employment a priority in the 21st century workplace.

Remember that voluntary compliance simply makes good business sense.

DG

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