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Disability Hiring Hesitancy Is A Problem Young Leaders Can Solve

Two adults with a hat in front of a baking station with kitchen tools and the product.

The Chew Crew is getting so skilled, other entrepreneurs may soon start poaching them, says the company owner Petra Pasquina

Is there a lack of disabled talent or is there a shortage of people who understand how to work with us? My guess, as dyslexic and ADHD, is the latter, but over the last year, acceptance has accelerated. Entrepreneurs, training programs and a confident new generation of skilled workers— 26% of them disabled job seekers—are changing the job landscape bit by bit. The work is hardly done.

To convince the wary, I’ll put it another way. There are 33 million people with disabilities of working age in the U.S. and 75% of them want to and can work—but are not employed, according to the National Organization on Disability. 

Now, the good news.

For several months, I followed a diverse group of disabled talent, hoping to see the positive side. The goal was to begin to create a realistic portrait of the 20% of people with disabilities lucky enough to have a job. What are they doing right and who is helping them on their career path? I hope their stories will demystify disabilities and help to make the statistics more human. 

Entrepreneurs Open Doors 

Creators and start-up businesses, inherently more agile than larger or more traditional employers, are finding a deep repository of workers in the disability community. Coming out of a food business incubator program housed within Stony Brook University, Petra Pasquina, founder and CEO of Chewma, a company that makes gluten-free protein bites, says her interest in hiring differently drew her to work with a nearby non-profit job-search program for autistic job seekers. Pasquina invited several job candidates to try their hand in the kitchen. All were enthusiastic bakers and had access to a job coach to help smooth over any work-related issues that might come up. 

I waited a few months to check back in with her. Her experience was positive. Team Chewma, as Pasquina calls them, quickly established mutual trust and expertise in the kitchen. Pasquina trained each person in the detailed work of measuring ingredients, rolling out dough and baking the bites to a perfect crispiness. By rotating work assignments in the kitchen, Pasquina and the job coach side by side discovered where each person felt most agile (or not). Using a slab roller that was originally designed for potters was the nemesis of several workers. (“I hate the machine and the machine hates me” one baker told Pasquina.) A few months later, her new-ish bakers are up and running, working independently without the job coach. It’s a process, says Pasquina, like training anyone to do this kind of detailed work might be,” she said. “We all had to be committed. The extra time I have now outside of the kitchen has been invaluable.” Seeking out business incubators is a way to help both disabled job seekers and businesses who can launch with a full understanding of what their customers need


Find A Workplace Advisor 

 Post-pandemic, an informed conversation either in person or via Zoom, remains one of the best ways to connect with future employees who identify as disabled. At schools across the country, career services departments and institutions such as the Starkloff Disability Institute in St. Louis have become portals of opportunity. The goal is for companies and community to recruit, prepare and welcome new graduates from their ranks and for candidates to be exposed to a variety of jobs.

On a recent Starkloff Disability Institute panel organized for students interested in communications (in which I participated), several speakers emphasized the need to hire unusual people and to assume that your career trajectory will not have a linear path. Because you may have been told you aren’t the right cultural fit or that you seemed nervous during the interviews shouldn’t keep you from persisting. Be yourself and practice interviewing as much as possible. Follow your passion because once you begin to speak about it, your nerves will fade away, I often counsel people.

Starkloff is a local organization. Nationally, job seekers and employers can find resources at new advocacy organizations made up of advocates in their 20s, 30s and 40s. (But don’t be mistaken, other advocates have been around long before the idea of inclusive hiring was even a sparkle in your boss’s eye.)

Share What Professional Success Looks Like 

Unfortunately, there are fewer people within organizations ready to embrace their own disability and speak out at work. They fear being bullied or fired or adding to the post-pandemic stress that already exists on the job.

Not everyone needs to be that fearful of speaking out. If we, people with disabilities who are working and succeeding are not out front talking about our experiences, efforts to help young job seekers will fail. Please raise your hand to talk about how you got your job, how you do it and how you plan to continue to thrive. Display your talent. If more disabled Americans who are employed don’t push the conversation forward, the number of unemployed won’t budge. Communicate outside of your regular workplace if you don’t feel comfortable talking about yourself at work. Your stories need to be heard, not just on TikTok, but also in professional settings. Volunteer for job panels and career events. We must transmit how professionals are doing stellar work and earning a living doing it. That should not be such a rarity within companies. 

Embrace Remote Options 

Americans are at a promising point in disability awareness but change still seems to be in its infancy. What makes the difference? “Being around more people with disabilities on a day-to-day basis, particularly in school, showed this generation that this a group that is competent, confident and independent,” says Mizrahi. Older generations who went to school before the Americans with Disabilities Act and IDEA did not have the opportunity to have talented students with disabilities in their classrooms. Most of their lives, people over 50 with disabilities have not been a part of the mainstream workforce. Graduates in their 20s and 30s expect more opportunity and are blazing a new trail, say experts at BroadFutures. As part of National Disability Awareness Month, BroadFutures, based in D.C., is sharing feedback from their corporate partners. “Our interns have contributed to our work in meaningful ways. We look forward to partnering with them again each time they have someone interested in foreign policy,” said a spokesperson from the Center For Strategic & International Studies. Internships range as wide as candidates interests. Ellie from Catonsville, Maryland interned at the National Association of People Supporting EmploymentFirst. These interns work in the public policy organization promoting workplace equity for disabled people. “I love my coworkers at APSE,” says Ellie, “and I feel like this is a stepping stone towards truly making a difference in others lives.” 

Physical barriers shouldn’t keep people from getting jobs, says Hawken Miller, who has multiple sclerosis and has written about how working from home using tech is a relief and a struggle. He currently works for BioNews Services and helps produce videos for The Washington Post. “For people with physical disabilities, it means they have the keyboards, monitors, even accessible toilet seats they need to make their day comfortable,” Miller said.

Neurodiverse job seekers may also feel more comfortable working remotely because they can better control the noise, when they take breaks and where they do their work—small things may affect productivity, says Miller. Still, he’d prefer to head into the office as he did when he began his job at the Post. “I miss the camaraderie even if it is tough to get there,” he said. 

Watch As Human Resources Reboots

HR departments, aware of these problems, are reimagining their hiring strategies, something that, pre-pandemic, seemed like a longshot for people with disabilities.  According to Paycom, a talent acquisition provider, 85% of HR departments are realigning their organizations to solve new problems such as labor shortages. That’s huge, because a one-size-for-all system won’t work for hiring. Industry experts say the goal of the changes is greater agility and making use of new technology. Another problematic bias is the alienating or vague language that some recruiters use in job descriptions. A job description for an office position that asks whether I can hold a 10-pound box above my head makes me wonder who writes this stuff, said one job seeker I spoke with who did not want to use their name. 

Compliance Is Here To Stay

Few can tame the compliance monster. But you can work around it. Newcomers are getting adept at doing so. Inclusively is a professional network rebooting the way “candidates with disabilities, mental health conditions, and chronic illnesses find jobs and connect with inclusive employers.” according to their website. It essentially allows jobseekers to enter their skills and workplace any workplace assistance they may need into a database and search for employers committed to creating disability-educated and accommodating workplaces. There are about 20,000 in their data base already, says Sarah Bernard, the company’s COO. For employers, “we bring structure and uniformity around accommodations. Currently organizations view workplace accommodations from the lens of compliance, but I think the value extends far beyond this use case, says Bernard. “These employers are tapping into the proven benefits of hiring a more diverse workforce.” 

Will the U.S. see hockey-stick growth in disability hiring this year? It’s doubtful. But we’re on our way.There is a different message circulating that’s optimistic as well as realistic. We know what and how we need to communicate and are now in the midst of a watershed campaign to get employers to understand that.