Companies You Can Aspire To

By , October 7, 2010

If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it. As a young girl, a poster of a ballerina with these simple words written beneath her hung in my room, to remind me that all it takes is a dream.

When it comes to hiring people with disabilities, there are two sectors that are making these dreams come true, and to whom we can turn to as models: the Federal government and Fortune 500s. Both of these groups have made some headway into putting programs and processes in place for hiring the disability demographic.

On the federal side, President Obama has signed a mandate to require 100,000 individuals with disabilities to be employed by the government  — the nation’s largest employer — over five years. Helping to bring this program to fruition is Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal contractors and subcontractors with government contracts in excess of $10,000 to employ qualified individuals with disabilities.

In the private sector, the largest employers, undoubtedly, have the most flexibility and resources to recruit, hire, train and support a workforce with disabilities. In a recent DiversityInc. survey of top companies that employ people with disabilities, all of the employers:

  • have at least one resource group for employees
  • offer dependent-care benefits (including childcare and eldercare)
  • feature images and/or video of people with disabilities on their corporate web sites, compared with 80 percent of the DiversityInc Top 50

Also 8 out of 10 surveyed employers offer alternative career tracks for parents or others with long-term family-care issues. In 2010, the employers that made the list included IBM, Ernst & Young and Proctor & Gamble.

Small and medium size businesses can live this dream too, taking a clue from their Goliath counterparts. The trick is to start small, and think big.

For example, if you’re a business owner, take stock of what your company truly offers to the marketplace, and how people with different abilities can meet that need, either through the use of assistive technology or by doing things a little bit differently.

If it’s customer service via call centers, this offers a great opportunity for people with vision loss or who cannot leave home due to a physical disability. JLodge, a call-center operating service based in Fort Myers, Fla., offers its 250 employees with disabilities meaningful employment working out of their home.

The owners of The Centerville Pie Company, which employs people with disabilities, meet with Oprah Winfrey.

The owners of The Centerville Pie Company, which employs people with disabilities, meet with Oprah Winfrey.

If it’s making pastries, then people of all abilities, including those who may have developmental, intellectual or learning disorders can benefit from a schedule and task list. At Centerville Pie Company on Cape Cod, Mass., the owners employ 30 men and women with special needs, who help with everything from slicing and dicing apples to packaging pies for shipping. Centerville Pie Company was recently featured on Oprah, who helped get the pies featured in Harry & David catalogs.

TecAccess, started by a woman whose daughter has Down syndrome, employs people with disabilities to provide accessibility testing of hardware and software, including websites, which by law are required to be accessible to visually impaired people using screen readers. For example, a few years ago Target was hit with a $3 million fine for failing to make its website images readable out loud to the blind. TecAccess now has over 60 associates with disabilities ranging from intellectual to physical.

Not sure where to start? Do what Dawn Nagel, manager of a Holiday Inn Express in Ft. Pierre, S.D., did. She worked with her state’s vocational rehabilitation center to find candidates, and to date has hired between 75 and 100 people with disabilities.

Size really doesn’t matter. It all starts with a desire to evolve and diversify your workforce, and a plan to make it a reality. Dream big enough, and you even could get on Oprah, too!

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Author: Suzanne Robitaille

Suzanne Robitaille is the founder of abledbody.com, a website on disability issues. She is the former assistive technology columnist for BusinessWeek.com, giving rise to her fascination with technology that helps people with disabilities surmount barriers in the workplace and life space. She is also the author of The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology & Devices. As a writer and blogger, Suzanne is a trusted source of disability information for The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, HealthDay, Media Post, Ability Magazine, Disaboom and more. Suzanne lost her hearing at age four and grew up profoundly deaf. In 2002 she received a cochlear implant, which she credits as "the ultimate assistive technology."