Like the opening to Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” current U.S. unemployment data is the best of times and the worst of times. If you’re an able-bodied worker, unemployment has hovered near 3.5 percent during the past year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If, however, you’re a disabled person in America, the unemployment rate is approximately 70 percent according to Our Ability Inc., an Albany, New York-based provider of workforce consulting and mentoring for employers and disabled people.
“The Department of Labor only counts people looking for a job within the last 11 months,” said John Robinson, Our Ability’s CEO. “Four out of five people with disabilities are still looking for a job after 11 months. One of the most important things we need is awareness that people with disabilities have the ability to do a job.”
At a time when our country is struggling to find workers across many sectors, Robinson said looking past a disabled American’s perceived shortcomings would not only be the right thing to do but also profitable. According to Robinson, employers need hiring managers and senior leaders who are willing to ask questions of and open their mind to people with disabilities. The type of disability someone has isn’t always a visible one, either. Seventy percent of disabilities, notes Our Ability, are invisible: Asperger’s (a form of autism), epilepsy and attention deficit disorder to name a few.
When senior leaders are afraid to engage in a discussion with a disabled person, we fall short as employers (and a society). All people are not identical or equally talented. But that doesn’t mean we can’t provide equal rights. All men and women deserve a level playing field so they can focus on and apply their strengths.
Instead, our hiring (and even our parenting) does the opposite. When hiring managers communicate with an able-bodied interviewee, the interviewer will ask the applicant about skills and experience. When that same hiring manager sits down with a disabled person, the focus tends to be on the interviewee’s weaknesses and the help they’ll need to perform the job. When a hiring manager gives a disabled person a chance, sometimes the decision rests on the fact that the employer can mitigate the new hire’s weakness rather than take advantage of their strengths. That, in turn, creates a culture of dependence. There’s a corollary with the recent college admissions scandal. The parents who attempted to sweep away the obstacles their child faced in competing fairly for college ultimately caused their son or daughter to feel devalued.
As employers, college administrators and parents, we all exert influence. We have to remind ourselves that a remarkable résumé is a beginning and, conversely, casting aside an unremarkable CV could cause an otherwise notable candidate to fall through the cracks. If someone submits a résumé, there’s clearly interest in the job. Following up on résumés could uncover more to the applicant’s story. Some hiring managers and admissions officers will balk at the notion that more time should be spent on a selection process that’s already overwhelming. Perhaps the answer is a mix of technology as well as hiring a more diverse group of people to evaluate résumés, job candidates, college applications and prospective students.
Through a grant from Microsoft, Our Ability is using artificial intelligence in the form of chatbots to help disabled workers navigate the manual process of filling out résumés; the technology is also playing a role in helping individuals find the skills they need for a job they desire. And according to Robinson, companies can search Our Ability’s website to find workers with the strengths and skills they need to fill open positions. So far, Robinson says the AI technology is proving every bit as good, perhaps even better, than the traditional job coach in helping disabled people advocate for themselves with résumés and applications.
With the passage, nearly 30 years ago, of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there’s an entire generation who’s grown up with wheelchair ramps and braille on signage inside buildings. But we have to go further and look beyond signs, résumés and appearances.
When it comes to hiring, disabled people aren’t looking for charity any more than some of the children caught up in the college admissions scandal were looking for a free ride. Both groups want what any fair-minded person wants: to be seen for who they really are.