Springfield, MO

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Ready, Willing and Able: People with disabilities often are overlooked, says workforce chief

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Local employers continue to feel the effects of a labor shortage, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting the unemployment rate for the Springfield metro area at 2.6% in August and hiring signs still all over town.

For people with disabilities, the unemployment rate – that is, the percentage of people who are actively looking for work – is typically twice that of those without disabilities, suggesting employers might find the workers they need if they broaden their view of potential hires.

“Historically, those with disabilities have had the highest unemployment rate, but they’re oftentimes overlooked when we’re talking about current economic and labor market issues,” said Sally Payne, the city of Springfield’s director of workforce development.

Payne said caution on the part of employers may be a leading cause. Many believe hiring a disabled worker means paying a high cost for accommodations.

“The reality is the average accommodation costs around $50,” Payne said.

A 2020 survey prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor puts the price higher, at an average of $500, with examples like computer equipment, workspace renovations and improved seating. But some changes, like finding a private office space for a worker or allowing a work-from-home option, may carry no cost.

Shannon Porter, CEO of the disabilities service organization Empower: abilities, gave further examples of inexpensive accommodations, like moving items within reach or raising or lowering furniture. Simply asking an employee what might be helpful is the most important step an employer can take, she added.

Porter said her agency is a free resource for employers who want to figure out issues related to employment of people with disabilities, and one of the big issues is accommodations.

“We can help figure things out, depending on the barrier,” she said. “We’re happy to come in and make an assessment and try out equipment.”

If one adaptive keyboard doesn’t work, another might, Porter said, and being able to try options means employers and new hires won’t have to work things out on their own.

“We want to help people with disabilities be successful,” Porter said.

Working with disabilities
Brooke Gober is a youth specialist at Empower: abilities, where she works helping youth with disabilities transition from high school. She uses a wheelchair herself following a spinal cord injury, and said she considers herself lucky to have a workplace that appreciates her gifts.

“I’m in a nice workplace where my disability is valued, and so any type of accommodation I need, any requirement I have, they really understand why I’m asking for it. That’s why I don’t feel like it’s much of an issue,” she said.

Gober said her disability is indeed valued – not ignored or tolerated.

“I think they see my disability as something that can be utilized in my job to help other people with disabilities, and also showing people that are able-bodied that disabilities are not a problem or an issue or any type of negative factor.”

Clementine Bentley is the owner of Bentley Skincare & Wellness LLC. As a business owner, she counts among the 9.6% of disabled workers who were self-employed in 2021 (above the 6.4% of business owners without a disability, per BLS data).

Bentley, who is autistic, also has a handful of other disabling conditions. She said she has experienced homelessness and, through misdiagnosis, institutionalization, but she found supportive people who helped her get to where she is today.

She has also had supportive animals, like her current service dog, Abel.

Since 2017, Bentley’s company has offered day spa, medical spa, surgical treatments and wellness services. Counting Bentley, the office has a staff of four.

Like Gober, Bentley sees certain advantages to her disabilities – particularly autism.

“Everyone has an agenda, but our agenda is actually pretty pure,” she said. “It’s simple. In workforces where you’re dealing with a lot of different personalities, I think we’re very easy to get along with.”

And she has what she calls a superpower: the ability to hyperfocus and discover patterns.

“Repetition is kind of soothing to someone like me,” Bentley said. “I think we’d be great in manufacturing.”

An employer herself now after years working in various roles, Bentley said she hires for attitude.

“It’s so easy to get offended, and it doesn’t do us any good,” she said. “We have to greet this world with a sense of humor because it will make us happier and more productive.”

Left out
According to the 2021 Disability Statistics Compendium, people with disabilities have made up 12%-14% of the U.S. population since 2008. The poverty rate for disabled people was reported at 26%, versus 11% for the nondisabled population.

BLS reported that in 2021, 19% of people with a disability were employed, up from 18% in 2020. In contrast, 64% of people without a disability were employed, up from 62% the previous year. Employment was part time for 29% of workers with disabilities, compared to 16% for those without.

Natalie Jenkins Adams is someone who would desperately like to be part of the workforce. She identifies as neurodiverse, with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism, and she is awaiting a determination for Social Security disability benefits related to her disabilities and to a complicating factor of long COVID, sustained health difficulties resulting from a COVID-19 infection.

For five years, Adams worked as an accounting analyst – she declined to say where – until a little over a year ago. She said there are some particular challenges to having what she called an invisible disability.

“When you are asking for help, a lot of times people think that you’re challenging instead of just trying to get more information,” she said.

At her former workplace, Adams said she had an open cubicle space where she could hear other people’s conversations and had multiple interruptions.

“It’s very difficult to keep your mind on what you’re doing,” she said, noting that difficulty coping with distractions kept her from being an effective accounting analyst.

She said to continue functioning in her job, she would have required accommodations like a closed workspace or the ability to continue working from home, as during the pandemic.

“The company I worked for was very good about things like getting you a special chair if you need it or adjusting your workspace ergonomically,” she added.

Adams said with three college degrees and years of experience, it’s difficult to be sidelined. She’s not alone in wishing she could find a work home.

The unemployment rate for people with a disability was 10% in 2021, about twice the rate of those without a disability, according to BLS. About 80% of people with disabilities were not in the labor force in 2021, compared to 30% of those without a disability – yet 3% of these said they would like to be.

Rethinking descriptions
Accommodations go a long way when it comes to making space for workers with disabilities, according to Payne – but there can be no workers to accommodate if job descriptions keep them from applying.

Payne suggested employers take a look at the language they use in job descriptions to make sure no one is being needlessly eliminated.

“Does a job seriously need to be able to lift 50 pounds?” she said. “Some of those descriptions can be very discouraging and a huge barrier.”

Similarly, a job description that requires employees to stand or walk might specify instead the ability to maintain a stationary position or to traverse a room, so that people with mobility needs can picture themselves performing that role.

Porter said once an employee is in place, with or without disabilities, communication is key.

“If they really want to tap into that workforce, they’re going to have to be more flexible, creative, have better communication with that employee, and that has to go throughout the whole organizational structure,” she said. “If they don’t feel accepted, that employee’s probably not going to integrate and stay.”


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