Hiring the Invisible Workforce

Information technology workers with disabilities remain one of the most overlooked segments of the workforce. Rehabilitation technology expert Richard Dodds offers advice on how IT managers can go a better job of hiring, and accomidating, IT professionals with disabilities.

Information technology workers with disabilities remain one of the most overlooked segments of the workforce. But when someone is seated in front of a computer and communicating through a Web site, a wheelchair, a cane or a hearing aide becomes invisible. That's why the IT field is such a nice fit for people with disabilities, says Richard Dodds, a 20-year veteran of IT and director of technology at Community Options Inc., a national nonprofit group that provides employment and residential services for people with disabilities. "Communication of ideas, and not communication of body language - that is the key of this whole thing," Dodds says. "Get beyond the minutiae." In a recent interview with Computerworld's Melissa Solomon, he spoke about benefits workers with disabilities have to offer and how IT employers can help accommodate them on the job.

What are some ways employers can accommodate IT workers with disabilities? First, every individual is just that, an individual, so what might work for one person might not work for another. Using technology, virtually everyone can succeed at doing the job in the workplace. What most people fail at is the social side of their job. Typically, when it comes to employing people with disabilities, the very basics that employers need to know [are] No. 1, they need to interview people based on their skills, not on what they look like or what they sound like and if they come in in a wheelchair. . . . Ask questions via e-mail before [job candidates] come in.

Then, if you figure out that "this person's got the skill set we want" . . . you can't ask them at the very beginning, "Well, what's your disability, and what do I have to do to accommodate that?" That's patently illegal. The Americans With Disabilities Act [ADA] prevents you from doing that. But what you can do is say, "We're making you a job offer; is there anything else we need to know about you? Any particular accommodations we need to know so we can have this job all set up correctly for you?"

What are some common accommodations for IT workers? Many accommodations are discovered as the job goes on. It's very difficult for anyone who hasn't done the job yet to say, "Gosh, I've just done the interview and I think I'm going to need X, Y and Z." The majority of job-site accommodations that are done in this country - I think it's 80% - cost less than $500. . . . Many accommodations [don't cost anything]. Often, it's, "Can you move a filing cabinet?" Even some of the things that were expensive five to six years ago are inexpensive [now]. . . . Voice input technology, the top-of-the-line systems now, you can go to OfficeMax or Staples and purchase for less than $300. And on top of all this, you can request that [your state's] division of vocation rehabilitation purchase that access tool for the individual. As you can well imagine, a state system is probably not that speedy. . . . So, if you're employing somebody, you don't want to wait a month to get a piece of technology.

Where can employers find tips on saving money on workplace accommodations? The Job Accommodation Network . . . . But before you go to these big, national resources, ask the person who's asking for the accommodation how they've seen it done or how they would like it done. Because often, they know the least expensive, most efficient way of getting it done.

Are there steps employers need to take to protect themselves legally if they need to fire an IT staffer with a disability? The key here is you should not be afraid to fire somebody because they have a disability. If you provide them with reasonable accommodations and they don't perform . . . you give them that opportunity, and it's up to them to succeed or fail. If you hold one group to a lesser standard, that's obvious discrimination. ADA is about civil rights . . . It's not about quotas.

What about sensitivity issues? Should, for instance, employers alter their management style for IT staffers with disabilities? I would incorporate that into the general sensitivity training or diversity in the workforce training that is done all over the place. If it's done in an isolated way, then it can actually backfire. Because then people are hypersensitive. It's more about getting to know individuals than this blanket [statement], "All people with disabilities you should talk loud to, or open the door for or offer to help." I think people should start to think, "How about me? How would I like to be treated in that situation?"

Should companies form disability commissions or committees? If you're a company that already employs people with disabilities, if you have a planning committee or any kind of building you're doing [or] if you have a human resource committee . . . you want those folks on committees.

With today's job market, many employers try to reach out to untapped populations. Are there services that can help companies recruit IT workers with disabilities? There isn't the disabled workers' want ads . . . [but] every state in this nation has independent living centers - United Cerebral Palsy, the Association of Retarded Citizens, Easter Seals, vocation rehabilitation. So without saying, "I'm looking to hire people with disabilities," you could say, "Hello voc rehab, we're looking to hire people; these are the jobs we have open. Do you have anybody?" [There's also] the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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