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Employers increasingly rely on workers with disabilities amid work-from-home, talent shortage

BY Sunday, November 07, 2021 05:45pm

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Trina Edmondson rarely got calls from employers interested in hiring a person with a disability.

That changed, though, as employers became accustomed to people working from home and as a tight labor market worsened through 2021.

The combination of the two factors now has Edmondson — the workforce program development manager at Disability Advocates of Kent County — regularly taking calls from employers.

“Employers are really opening their eyes to possibilities in the disability realm,” said Edmondson, who believes the pandemic may represent a turning point for people living with a physical or developmental disability to enter or return to the workforce.

“So many awful things have happened because of COVID, but it really has opened up a lot of opportunities for people with disabilities, and for employers, too, to see what’s out there,” she said.

The few inquiries that Disability Advocates of Kent County previously received from employers have since become constant as companies seek to tap what historically has been a largely overlooked talent pool, Edmondson said.

Disability Advocates of Kent County works with clients who have a disability to prepare them for employment. The organization, which offers an array of services for people with a disability, then connects clients with job placement services at vocational rehabilitation agencies that can help people find a job, she said.

The increased contacts from inquiring employers started in mid 2020. The increase has been “huge” since May of this year, she said.

“I would usually hear from one or maybe two employers in a year. Now I’m getting contacted very often, many times a week,” Edmondson said.

Calls from employers have come from across economic sectors, ranging from from light industrial work to office help. One recent inquiry came from a church that was seeking to fill an administrative position, Edmondson said.

Quite often a company that hires a person with a disability is “going to get somebody who is very innovative (and) a problem-solver because they have to be. They have challenges every single day,” Edmondson said.

Employer flexibility

At Grand Rapids-based Hope Network, employer inquiries have risen 25 percent or more this year, said Chief Operating Officer Tim Becker.

Hope Network operates a variety of workforce development initiatives for people with a physical or developmental disability. That includes facilities in Grand Rapids, Cadillac and Wayne County that do contract work such as packaging for small- and mid-sized manufacturers. Hope Network also directly places clients at jobs with employers and runs a center that provides applied behavioral analysis for people with autism.

Given the present labor market, employers are more flexible today in scheduling and providing workplace accommodations for people with a disability, Becker said.

“It’s one of the silver linings of the current economic environment, which has generally been frustrating for almost all employers to get people in,” Becker said. “For employers that take a chance and try something different, I think many of them will find this really works well for them and, hopefully, they’ll continue it in the future.”

Becker advises that employers “strike the right balance” between accommodating someone in the workplace who has a disability and remaining flexible on the hours they work. For example, a person with a disability may receive Social Security benefits. 

“They have to walk that tightrope where they don’t exceed the number of hours whereby they lose their benefits,” Becker said.

“The biggest thing is just making sure the environment is accommodating and an appropriate fit,” he added. “Many of the people that we support are able to step right in and do just fine, and in many instances unassisted. Others, though, may need a bit of support in certain settings. So, just have an awareness of the appropriate accommodations to ensure we’re setting people up for success. As long as those accommodations are reasonable, it’s not a burden on the employer and they’ll find they have a very productive workforce member.”

Work from home

Meanwhile, the work-from-home shift has opened employment opportunities for people with a disability who have limited mobility, cannot drive and lack access to public transportation, or have another barrier that makes it difficult to get to a workplace each day, Edmondson said. 

“They would always come up with a reason that it can’t be done remotely,” Edmondson said. “But since this happened and a lot of people do work from home, it’s become more of the norm. It’s not even really an accommodation request. If you can work from home, employers want you to.”

Liz Elias, clinical director at Gateway Pediatric Therapy LLC, said employers often focus on the support an individual might need rather than their abilities. Gateway, which has more than a dozen locations in Michigan, Ohio and Georgia, provides applied behavioral analysis for people with autism.

People with autism often have “specialized skill sets or special interests” that help them grow and develop in the workplace or be able to work “very independently,” Elias said.

“There’s still a lot of stigma around trying to hire someone with autism. Employers focus on the things that may be a little difficult to manage in the workplace, instead of looking at the skills and traits autistic individuals have that would benefit the workplace so much,” she said. “If employers can look past that diagnosis, they’ll see that there’s so much benefit they can get from employees that are on the spectrum.”

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