Jessica Johns, senior counsel at CoxHealth, handles issues involving individuals with disabilities on a daily basis.
To be clear, she’s not complaining about it. She considers it a vitally important part of her job for the health system.
Johns was one of the guest speakers Oct. 24 at the fourth annual EmployAbility Summit, organized by the Missouri Job Center. She spoke before a crowd of approximately 150 at The Diamond Room on West Grand Street, covering CoxHealth’s processes for including individuals with disabilities into the workforce. She also offered legal pointers about inclusion and how employers can meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The approach that CoxHealth takes, and most employers can have legal counsel advise, is consider everything a disability except someone wearing eyeglasses,” Johns said.
In that thinking, it’s best to err on the side of inclusion. She said doing so will set up employers for success in complying with the ADA and provide the individual with what they need in the workplace.
“My advice to you as employers is to identify somebody in your organization who is trained in the ADA and who will understand how it works,” she said. “Then train the rest of your management individuals to call that person if they have an issue, instead of trying to handle it on their own.”
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Mary Ann Rojas, director of the city’s Department of Workforce Development, said the annual summit is a way for the Missouri Job Center to expand on its service to clients, some of whom have unique needs.
“Having a disability for some can be perceived as a barrier, but we want to focus on serving that population,” she said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 9.2 percent in 2017, compared with 4.2 percent for those without disabilities that year.
One of every four adults in the U.S. has a disability that impacts major life activities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With more jobs available than people to fill them, Rojas said it’s important for employers to realize those with disabilities are an untapped resource.
“It’s a demographic that does have talents, skills and abilities they can bring to the workforce,” she said. “We’re just trying to not only focus on breaking down barriers for the individual, but also breaking down those perceived barriers for employers on hiring people with disabilities.”
While businesses are starting to reach out to the Job Center more often to facilitate those connections, Rojas said more work needs to be done.
“I don’t know if we’re there yet as being that agency, but it has definitely improved over the years, in terms of us being a resource for other businesses,” she said.
Close to the CDC’s analysis that about 25 percent of Americans are disabled, Johns estimated that of CoxHealth’s employees – numbering more than 10,000 – around 20 percent live with a disability. Johns spends about 70 percent of her time at work dealing with labor and employment issues, and the majority of those issues involve individuals with disabilities. Because there are so many invisible disabilities, she said it could be a long time before an employed individual may feel comfortable talking about the issue with their employer, if at all.
Sometimes questions about receiving help for disability issues may come from current employees who might not know how to articulate what they need.
“They really want to do their job – that’s what we’ve found,” Johns said. “But they have medical issues that require them to have some kind of a tweak, some kind of an accommodation. That’s the most common call that we get.”
Autism is one disability starting to show up more in the workforce. According to the CDC, one in 68 children are diagnosed with autism.
Wendy Hensel, dean of the College of Law at Georgia State University, told the audience it’s an issue that’s only going to get bigger. As a mother of a 17-year-old with high-functioning autism, Hensel said the unemployment rate for autistic individuals is 80 percent, close to the highest of all disabilities.
“They’re going to college, they’re graduating and then there’s a cliff,” she said. “Most people with autism identify this as the single-largest barrier facing them in society as adults.”
Hensel noted those with autism have skills they can bring to employers, such as accuracy, attention to detail, high levels of technical abilities in visual areas and mathematics, memories for facts and figures, and a very logical approach to tasks.
It’s important for employers to be engaged in the interactive process with the individual with a disability, not only to show they genuinely care about the employee but also to avoid being sued. Hensel noted legal protection for people with autism and employment has expanded pretty significantly in recent years.
At CoxHealth, Johns said the health system has a very specialized process for incorporating individuals with disabilities into the workforce.
“I think people need to be educated about disabilities covering more than just what we can see with the eyes,” she said, adding the focus should be on people’s abilities. “Oftentimes, a disability is a small part of who they are, and focusing on what they can do in the workforce is really important.”
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