Job horizons widen for those with disabilities

Ginnette Riquelme/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
In Mexico City, Elizabeth Cruz Cruz participates in a mobility workshop that the organization Vida Independiente México offers to people who use wheelchairs.
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A job. It’s perhaps the last – and biggest – obstacle for bringing those with disabilities into the mainstream. There’s still a long way to go, but a confluence of forces from government quotas and incentives to technological improvements is raising the bar of opportunity. From Mexico to Germany, Canada, and the United States, employers are beginning to look beyond limitation toward the goal of full integration in the workplace. Elizabeth Cruz Cruz in Mexico City, who relies on a wheelchair, says that without a job “I’ve never had space or reason to set goals and look ahead.” That’s changing as, with help from a nonprofit training program, she recently found work as an airport ticket-checker. Says Carol Glazer of the National Organization on Disability in New York. “We're still only scratching the surface when it comes to looking at people with disabilities, not for their weaknesses and their deficits and their inabilities but rather for their strengths and their talents.”

Why We Wrote This

How can people struggling with disabilities get ahead? When companies hire them for their skills, not just to fill a quota. That's beginning to happen in countries from Mexico to Germany, Canada, and the United States.

Rich Donovan, a Canadian living with cerebral palsy, earned his financial firm $35 million in profit when he was a trader in New York City. Many factors drove that kind of success. But he says having a disability shaped his distinct response to risk and stress, which gave him an edge on the trading floor.

A billion-dollar deal? He’d stay cool as a cucumber. Entering a new building with an unknown layout? That was by far the bigger stressor. “My ability to handle stress, which is a key piece of being a trader, entrepreneur, or executive, I don’t feel it the way most people feel it, because the risk of doing other things is far greater,” he says. “As a trader, it’s always good to think differently in the marketplace.”

That’s the message he is now taking to multinationals, multilateral organizations, and governments through his Toronto-based company Return on Disability Group. Hiring people with disabilities isn’t about doing what’s right, but about what’s right for the bottom line. 

Why We Wrote This

How can people struggling with disabilities get ahead? When companies hire them for their skills, not just to fill a quota. That's beginning to happen in countries from Mexico to Germany, Canada, and the United States.

And more employers around the world are, slowly, starting to agree. The 10 years since Mr. Donovan started his company – consulting with the likes of PepsiCo and Microsoft – have also marked a decade since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was enacted, the first binding international human rights treaty that codified the rights of those with disabilities. 

Indeed, a confluence of forces – from government quotas and incentives to technological improvements for workers with disabilities – have raised the bar of opportunity. Most important, perhaps, employers are beginning to look beyond limitation toward the goal of full integration in the workplace. There’s still a long way to go, and some policies are criticized for reinforcing stigmas that they are intended to correct. But from Mexico to Germany, Canada, and the United States, progress is visible.

“Employment really is the last remaining obstacle for people with disabilities. And that's been the most stubborn barrier even in this full-employment economy,” says Carol Glazer of the National Organization on Disability in New York. “We're still only scratching the surface when it comes to looking at people with disabilities, not for their weaknesses and their deficits and their inabilities, but rather for their strengths and their talents.”


Jim Sinocchi, head of disability inclusion at JPMorgan Chase & Co., says the time to act is now. He was retired after a long career at IBM, where he worked on inclusion issues, when the bank contacted him to grow the ranks of those with disabilities in their workforce. They convinced him that, after making progress on diversity in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation, they wanted to address disabilities next.

“One of the reasons why I came back was because I thought the 21st century is ripe for a new era of disability inclusion,” says Mr. Sinocchi, who is two years into his role at JPMorgan Chase and has worked for decades despite an accident that left him with severely impaired mobility. “All the stars were aligning.”

Among the factors pushing change, he lists changing attitudes, medical improvements, and new technology to assist workers – not to mention a strong job market that tends to make employers less discriminatory. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Nathalia Samaniego (l.) and Ariel Castillo sort clothes at a retail shop at The Viscardi Center, which offers job training and placement for people with disabilities, in Albertson, N.Y.

An employment gap

Globally, about 15 percent of the population, or more than a billion people today, live with some form of disability, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And that number is expected to grow if, as the baby boomer generation ages, it faces more challenges ranging from vision to mobility.

The employment rate of working-age people with disabilities sits at about 44 percent, compared with 75 percent of those without, the WHO reports.

That disparity owes to various factors, from access and other logistical challenges, to discrimination, to fear of how much it will cost to hire workers with disabilities. Colleen Crispino, chief program officer at The Viscardi Center, a nonprofit in Albertson, N.Y., that aims to empower people with disabilities, says employees also face systematic barriers – like losing benefits they depend on for their care – if they get a job.

Many governments have sought to correct those ratios with top-down regulation to forge inclusive workforces. Today in Germany, which uses quotas and has laws that guarantee work for people with disabilities, the employment rate for people with disabilities is at an historic high: 45.1 percent, compared with 77.4 percent for the population at large.

Germany’s “sheltered workshops,” which provide a place of vocational training and employment for those with disabilities, employ some 310,000 workers across a network of more than 2,750 locations. By law, the state must guarantee them a position if they wish to work. “In other European countries, this group of people is usually cared for in nursing centers, occupational services, or living facilities without the possibility to work,” says Kathrin Völker, CEO of the German Federal Association of Sheltered Workshops. 

In fact, not everyone with a disability is easy to employ. For many, the sheltered-workshops may provide jobs that are preferable to none at all. 

Still, Mathilde Niehaus, a professor at the University of Cologne who studies the labor market and disabilities, argues that while sheltered workshops do important work, they create exclusive environments, rather than promoting inclusive workplaces. She points to representative bodies for employees with challenges, also enshrined in law, as more effective in mainstreaming those with disabilities, and ultimately helping them to attain more rights.

At the Germany auto company Daimler, Alfons Adam heads the body for employees with disabilities, ensuring workplaces are adjusted if an employee becomes physically challenged. That might include the remodeling of a machine if the worker can’t stand for prolonged periods of time. He says he believes it is the employer’s obligation to hire those with disabilities. But “we try to shape the workplaces in a way they’re not just a risk [for the company] but an opportunity.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Giovannie Briceno (l.) and Donovan Watson learn how to make pizza from Robert Foley at The Viscardi Center, a group in Albertson, N.Y., that helps people with disabilities train for and find jobs.

When regulation backfires

The “opportunity” is too often the missing message: If companies view disability policy as just enforced regulation it often backfires. In China, the government has since 2007 required that all enterprises reserve at least 1.5 percent of their jobs for those with disabilities or face a fine. Many have opted to just pay the fee.

That’s why Joe Dale brings a business lens to his work as head of the Ontario Disability Employment Network. When he tells businesses why they should hire employees with disabilities, he tells them they ignore the demographic at their own peril.

In Canada, when including family and friends, those affected by disability comprise 53 percent of the population, he says. That represents enormous purchasing power.

Workers with challenges also bring diverse skills to the table, with the idea of “neurodiversity” increasingly making its way into human resource chatter.

Ms. Crispino points to Microsoft as a company that has actively recruited those within the autism spectrum, because many excel at tech jobs. At Walgreens, they’ve introduced efficiencies in supply chains, like touch screens, that ultimately help everyone, Mr. Dale says. They have also had to be tenacious and persistent in a world not built for them.

“A person who uses a wheelchair overcomes problems every day, to get out of bed, shower, change, make breakfast. He has solved more problems before 9 o’clock than most of us in a lifetime,” Dale says.

Fear of hiring

Many companies say they fear the cost of hiring workers with disabilities, says Ms. Glazer in New York. But it’s often no more expensive than any other hire. A report from the Job Accommodation Network within the US Department of Labor showed two-thirds of “accommodation solutions” cost less than $500, with a quarter costing nothing. More than half of employers surveyed in the report said the accommodation benefited their organization and led to average gains of $5,000.

Groups like hers, as well as consultancies and internal departments inside companies, are helping to overcome such concerns. Sinocchi developed for his company a global standard that empowers managers around the world to hire people with disabilities – and teach them how to promote them, what he calls an “upward mobility” standard. When he started two years ago, JPMorgan Chase counted 1.4 percent of its workforce as employees with a disability. That’s grown to 2.5 percent today, thanks to a mix of hiring and employees feeling more comfortable identifying a disability to the company.

One of the biggest barriers is mind-sets. Dale says their work is focused on educating companies to look at those with challenges just like anyone else, whether that’s measuring employee performance or enforcing discipline.

Ginnette Riquelme/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Wheelchair users in Mexico City enjoy street food during a break from a mobility workshop by Vida Independiente México on Nov. 13, 2018.

Companies often inadvertently reinforce stereotypes. For example, some have said their workers with disabilities are more loyal and tend to stay at the job longer. Even if that’s anecdotally true, says Donovan, the former New York trader, he sees stigma in the subtext. “I see these stories about the guy with Down Syndrome being in the same job for 30 years, and I don’t think that’s something to celebrate,” says Donovan. “I think that’s insulting to that guy. That guy should have been owning the store.”

Perspectives have changed since the 20th century, when disabilities were regarded as a medical condition that an individual needed to overcome. The Americans with Disabilities Act passed over a quarter century ago ushered in new thinking about disability as a social or civil rights issue that society collectively must respond to. Education attainment skyrocketed. Yet employment rates lagged, and in many ways remains the “toughest nut to crack,” says Matt Saleh, a research associate at the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University. Some countries with strong social insurance have not matched that protection with gains in the marketplace, he says. “Jobs are often a conduit to community participation, political participation, social participation, to developing networks, and having cultural capital.”

From street vendor to security officer

The prospect of work has been a game changer for Elizabeth Cruz Cruz, diagnosed with polio at age 3, who cannot walk and has limited use of one arm. Because of that, her family never sent her to school, and even as an adult she needed someone to accompany her anytime she left her house in Mexico City in her clunky wheelchair.

“I used to panic over the idea of leaving the house. I was afraid my neighbors would criticize me,” says Ms. Cruz, who until recently worked in the informal economy, selling socks and tights in a plaza near her home. She’d bring in about 500 pesos ($25) every two weeks on a good stretch. “I’ve spent my whole life worrying about the present – how to eat, how to pay rent. I’ve never had space or reason to set goals and look ahead,” she says. “No dreams, no illusions.”

But that’s changing for Ms. Cruz, who today wears black and tan fingerless gloves and sits in a light-weight wheelchair in front of an obstacle course of stairs, ramps, and boxes of varying heights meant to replicate the unpredictable streets in this sprawling metropolis.

About 18 months ago, she started attending weekly courses in Mexico City at the nonprofit Vida Independiente México, where she’s learned key lessons in navigating the city on her own: lifting the front wheels of her chair and balancing in order to board the city’s bus rapid transit system, or controlling her chair while ascending and descending the uneven city sidewalks. With the help of a nongovernmental organization, Foundation for Humanist Help for the Disabled, she recently landed a job at the Mexico City airport, where she’ll soon work reviewing passports and tickets before passengers go through the security line.

“I’ll earn benefits, for the first time in my life,” Cruz says. She’ll also receive a salary that’s nearly 10 times her informal earnings.

Mexico played a key role in the passage of the UN’s CRPD, following international criticism of its treatment of workers with disabilities. Since the 2000s, it has pushed through a number of national requirements and incentives, including a 2003 law making it illegal to impede access to any public institution. But, symbolic of the problem, when the Senate inaugurated its new home in 2011, it didn’t make the building accessible to wheelchairs.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Rob Rusch (r.), a manager at PwC, sits in on an employee training session at the firm’s office in Charlotte, N.C.

In the end it’s having workers like Cruz on the streets and commuting to their jobs that will have the greater influence on equality, far more than “words on paper,” says Enrique Reyes, an instructor at Vida Independiente. “In the past, having a disability meant hiding out, being pushed aside. I feel like I’ve seen real change with this model – the more people who can take public transport and work in visible jobs, the more disabilities are demystified.”

Not just employed, embraced

Visibility is crucial inside companies, too, especially when it comes to leadership, says Rob Rusch, a tax manager at PwC in Charlotte, N.C., which has spearheaded a pledge among CEOs to make their organizations more diverse.

Mr. Rusch has a diagnosed muscular condition that keeps him largely confined to a wheelchair, but that hasn’t kept his responsibilities as a team manager from growing. He's embraced the role of leader, but it also helps that he has seen his value embraced by the organization around him. In one instance, he thought he’d have to sit out on an offsite team-building activity. But his manager took him to Lowes to buy PVC pipe for a makeshift frame so that Rusch could wield a paintball gun in the game alongside his colleagues.

“Workplaces shouldn't just accommodate. They should empower,” says Rusch. “This is something that often gets lost in conversation about disabilities. A lot of the conversation is just about how to get people with disabilities employed.... We should be talking about, how do we get people with disabilities to be leaders.”

He adds: “Everyone has unique perspectives, and we're not tapping into those.”

– Felix Franz contributed reporting from Berlin and Xie Yujuan contributed research from Beijing.

[Editor's note: One sentence in the article has been corrected to reflect that the CEOs making pledges for diversity are largely from US companies, although many of the firms operate globally.]

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