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Opinion

The Podium

As economy climbs, don’t leave people with disabilities behind

When it comes to hiring people with disabilities, many employers are hesitant.

It’s an honest reaction. But that doesn’t make it any less unsettling, given how far businesses have come in hiring practices and policies. We’ve only recently seen meaningful and deliberate efforts to give employers and potential employees the support both sides need, when it comes to employing men and women with disabilities.

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We know that fears and uncertainties exist, even though more and more employers have adopted inclusive hiring practices throughout Massachusetts. If we are going to begin to see equitable levels of employment among the approximately 200,000 adults with disabilities in this state who are willing and able to work, yet remain unemployed, more businesses will need to reevaluate how they approach hiring, training and retaining people with disabilities. These are not problems caused by the recession, but long-term conditions fueled by fear and uncertainty.

Without jobs, men and women with disabilities often lead lives defined by poverty and isolation. It doesn’t have to be this way. The best tool to combat both of these ills is a job. Engagement with the workforce is one of the most rewarding experiences in life and that is no different for men and women with disabilities.

While many employers have concerns about hiring people with disabilities, often they want to take the step. They know from their peers that employees with disabilities have proven themselves to be reliable, trustworthy and hard-working. To expand their participation in the workforce, there are two steps that need to be taken. First, it’s critical to help find the right fit between workers and the jobs they hold. Second, there must be support for training both employees with disabilities and their managers who will provide them with important on-boarding and training assistance.

It is important to develop a match between the knowledge, skills and abilities of job seekers with disabilities to the essential functions of the jobs they hold. When employers work to ensure a good match, there is a much higher potential for success. Some assistance may be needed to assure that the prospective employee can learn these essential functions, just as can happen with any new employee. When people with disabilities enter a new workplace, employers should make use of training specialists who can help managers develop effective ways of training and supporting their new employees as they master their job tasks.

Other workplace opportunities like internships, offer a realistic learning setting for an individual with a disability to build a valuable work history through practical experiences. As they do for anyone, internships give people without disabilities the opportunity to learn new skills, explore potential careers and build both resumes and professional networks and references. Employers can serve as both the hiring entity for the job seeker as well as a training resource for those who need real work experiences as they develop their job interests and prepare to enter the job market. These opportunities can also serve employers to develop a culture of true diversity and inclusiveness throughout their companies.

Every year, Massachusetts employers provide thousands of internships to high school and college students, recent graduates, career-changers and parents returning to the workforce. It’s part of a natural give and take of the workforce. Let’s set a goal to provide at least ten percent of those opportunities to men and women with disabilities who are willing and able to work and provide supports and incentives to the companies who meet this goal. There’s no better way to break down barriers between us than when we meet each other face-to-face and learn from one another.

In 2010, business leaders responded to Governor Deval Patrick’s call to make Massachusetts a model employer for people with disabilities. Despite a sluggish economy, many of these recommendations are being implemented, but more needs to be done. The best first step is helping employers overcome their fears about hiring people with disabilities. The next step is creating opportunities where both employers and employees can see where the future will take them.

James Brett is president of the New England Council. Alexis Henry is the principal investigator of Work Without Limits at UMass Medical School.

The Podium features local experts and advocates weighing in on the issues of the day.Read more here.

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