December 27, 2018
The New York Times
By Ted Kennedy, Jr.
Mr. Kennedy is a disability rights lawyer and a state senator in Connecticut.
For years, companies have maintained low expectations about hiring people with disabilities. Most of these companies believed that employees with disabilities could not perform well in the workplace and that actively hiring them would drag company performance and profits down.
Thankfully, over time, many employers have come to understand that these perceptions are untrue. And new research strongly suggests that the opposite — that hiring people with disabilities is good for business.
A recent study has shown, for the first time, that companies that championed people with disabilities actually outperformed others — driving profitability and shareholder returns. Revenues were 28 percent higher, net income 200 percent higher, and profit margins 30 percent higher. Companies that improved internal practices for disability inclusion were also four times more likely to see higher total shareholder returns.
These findings, presented in a report from Accenture, in partnership with Disability: IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities, give companies a new reason to hire people with disabilities. The results are based on an analysis of the financial performance of 140 companies that averaged annual revenues of $43 billion and participated in the Disability Equality Index, an annual benchmarking tool that objectively rates company disability policies and practices.
What exactly are these exemplary companies doing?
Well, Bank of America brought together 300 people with intellectual disabilities to create a support services team to manage fulfillment services and external client engagement. Microsoft built a successful disability hiring program specifically for people on the autism spectrum. The program, designed to attract talent, is a multiday, hands-on academy that gives candidates an opportunity to meet hiring managers and learn about the company as an employer of choice. And CVS Health refocused its training programs to capitalize on characteristics — creativity, problem-solving ability and loyalty — that people with disabilities often demonstrate.
The new research identifies five common denominators among such organizations. First, they hire people with disabilities, ensuring that they’re represented in the workplace. Second, they carry out practices that encourage and advance those employees. Third, they provide accessible tools and technologies, paired with a formal accommodations program. Fourth, they generate awareness through recruitment efforts, disability education programs and grass-roots-led initiatives. Fifth, they create empowering environments through mentoring and coaching initiatives.
I lost my leg to bone cancer at age 12. Since then, I have fought, as a citizen, attorney and legislator, for the civil rights of people with disabilities. All of us deserve to be valued equally and provided the opportunity to participate fully in our society.
I was brought up in the disability rights movement. My uncle, President John F. Kennedy, left an important legacy on this front. Influenced by his experiences with his sister, Rosemary, President Kennedy witnessed firsthand how differently she was treated — how often she was ignored and excluded. He became the first president to make equality and social justice for people with disabilities a priority for his administration.
The last law that he signed before he died was the Community Mental Health Act, which called for an end to “custodial isolation” and created America’s network of community mental health centers. Congress has since passed more than 120 laws expanding disability rights, forever changing public attitudes.
But it was only when I went to college in the 1970s that I came of age politically and really thought about the issue of disability rights. It happened after I heard Judith Heumann, a disability rights advocate who contracted polio as an infant, give a speech and call disability a civil rights issue. I’d never heard that comparison before. I realized that millions of disabled people were unjustly being left out of daily life. Ms. Heumann inspired me to become an advocate myself.
I committed myself to this cause because of people like Joseph Pabin. He graduated from college with a degree in computer science and a 3.5 grade point average, an impressive résumé that easily got him in the door for job interviews. But once he showed up, interviewers noticed his speech impediment and told him they doubted he could successfully interact with customers. Mr. Pabin looked for a full-time job for three years without finding one, and his self-esteem plummeted. Ultimately, he contacted Bender Consulting Services, a career placement company that recruits, screens and hires people with disabilities for professional positions with private sector and government employers. Highmark offered him a full-time position in information technology. He has thrived at the company, working directly with customers, for four years now.
As we head into the new year, it’s important to recognize how far we’ve come. Twenty-eight years ago, the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed, prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities. I still remember standing alongside my father in the Rose Garden watching President George H.W. Bush sign the bill into law, forever engraving it into his legacy.
But when it comes to employment, a cornerstone of the American dream, we have failed to live up to the promise of this historic law. Many employers have yet to recognize that people with disabilities can contribute economically if sought out and accommodated. Americans with disabilities — a population of 50 million people, more than one in every five — still face numerous challenges in entering and participating in the work force.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 29 percent of Americans ages 16 to 64 with a disability were employed as of June 2018, compared with nearly 75 percent of those without a disability. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities who are actively seeking work is 9.2 percent — more than twice as high as for those without a disability (4.2 percent).
The United States labor market is at its strongest in decades, and possibly ever. But all too many people with disabilities remain without jobs. The Accenture analysis reveals this inspiring statistic: Hiring only 1 percent of the 10.7 million people with disabilities has the potential to boost the G.D.P. by an estimated $25 billion.
Once companies are aware of these potential economic benefits, they should be motivated to bring persons with disabilities into the work force to thrive as never before. Hiring them also gives companies fresh insights into developing and marketing products and services that meet the needs and preferences of consumers with disabilities — the third-largest market segment in the United States, according to the Office of Disability Employment Policy. To start, corporations should participate in the Disability Equality Index.
As a New Year’s resolution for corporate America, it’s hard to do better than to pledge to hire people with disabilities. Yes, we can do it because it always feels good to do what’s right. But now it turns out that reaching this next frontier for corporate social responsibility is also good business.
Ted Kennedy Jr., a Democratic state senator in Connecticut, is a health care lawyer and civil rights activist for people with disabilities and chairman of the American Association of People With Disabilities.