Nadine O Vogel
Many factors contribute to business success. One of the most important is attracting and retaining talent. All Chief Executives would agree that whether hired directly out of school or from another employer, skilled and loyal employees are the backbone of their business, yet they overlook 20% of the population that could potentially fill these roles – individuals with disabilities. In fact, 50-70% of people with disabilities are unemployed in industrialised countries, and 80-90% in developing countries.
Perhaps this is because no one has paid attention to research that shows that motivational levels of employees with disabilities are not just comparable but significantly higher than average. Because it can be considerably more difficult for these individuals to get a job, once hired, they appreciate the opportunity to work and are more motivated to perform above what is expected. This higher level of motivation leads to better-quality work and dealings with customers, increased loyalty and more consistent performance. Knowing this is one thing, but recruiting an individual with a disability requires a willingness to take the time to understand the candidates’ skills and abilities beyond one’s perception.
Unfortunately, recruiters don’t or won’t take the time to see beyond someone’s disability to truly understand their potential. Negative stereotypes, bias and barrier of thought often shadow our ability to focus on a person’s talent rather than what the person cannot do, or our perception of what they cannot do. Like everyone, individuals with disabilities have their own unique range of skills and talents. But unlike their non-disabled counterparts, they often develop additional skills to successfully navigate daily life.
After all, our society was not designed with disability in mind. Companies regularly seek out candidates and employees who are innovative problem solvers, yet don’t see how hiring individuals with disabilities is the answer. Because our environments are not designed for people with disabilities, it’s often up to the individual to find creative ways to get things done. This necessity to adapt and find solutions to problems and situations in life that non-disabled people do not face equips people with disabilities with superior problem-solving skills and higher willingness to experiment. One of my employees, for example, uses software to dictate emails and documents. Because the software types at the speed she speaks and without any spelling mistakes or typos, her output is almost triple that of her non-disabled peers. Some employers only see the need for a reasonable adjustment and an excuse not to hire. A smart employer, however, sees increased productivity and asks, how do I find more individuals like this? Another employee has the tenacity and determination of no other. She has physical disabilities that make typical tasks difficult but because of her will to succeed she meets every challenge with grit and determination; a trait every employer should value.
When needing supplies from the storage room, her non-disabled colleagues often stand on a stool or chair to reach what they need, occasionally slipping or falling, resulting in injuries that reduce productivity. Because this individual uses a wheelchair, she came up with an alternative solution and, in doing so, made it safer for everyone. I’ve had clients who, once they hire someone who is deaf, only want to hire deaf workers. Why? Because they tend not to get distracted by non-work-related conversations and are therefore more productive. I’ve had other clients who only want to hire people on the autism spectrum because of their laser-focus attention to detail. For jobs requiring repetitive tasks, people with intellectual disabilities are often quite successful because they are not easily bored by the repetitiveness of the job. For those with severe disabilities, reliance on technology can be great, including in their private lives. This often shows up as an advantage at work in an above-average understanding of technology and information technology.
Having experienced Covid-19 over the past year, companies have found this particular skill to be quite advantageous as employees were forced to work from home, completely relying on technology for all aspects of their jobs. There’s an old saying: “perspective is everything”. The dictionary defines perspective as a particular attitude or way of regarding something. The perspective of my employees who have disabilities is that everything has a potential solution – in most cases, more than one. For these individuals, every challenge is nothing but an opportunity in disguise. They look at life as a glass half full rather than half empty. What business doesn’t need optimistic problem solvers, people who only see solutions? In addition to the talent and unique skills an employee with disabilities brings to an employer, other benefits have been recognised in study after study. And these findings are similar regardless of industry, geography or even job type. Generally speaking, employees with disabilities are just as productive as their non-disabled colleagues, require less time off for illness or injury, have fewer workplace accidents and greater retention. This not only spells increased productivity, but also increased profitability. And when asked, customers say they prefer to buy their goods and services from companies that employ people with disabilities.
This all means hiring individuals with disabilities can bring about competitive advantage. All of us, disabled or not, prefer to work for employers who are inclusive, accessible and who take care of their employees and recognise and reward talent. The employers who understand this not only attract the best talent – they retain it for the long term.