Riskon in the News

February 2002
Human Resource Executive

“Disabling Misconceptions” 
By Christopher Cornell

As more disabled people enter the workforce, experts advise training others on the subtleties of working with them.

            People mean well, usually.  But Barry Honig, president of Tenafly, NJ-based executive recruitment firm Riskon, who is blind, knows that good intentions don't always translate into sensitive behavior.

            “I was starting at a company some years ago,” he recalls, “and an executive secretary was arranging for a car to pick me up at the airport.  At one point, she asked me if the driver should show his identification to my dog.”

            Honig can laugh about it now, but obviously it's never a good idea to alienate a new employee before he's even stepped into the building.  And even if you're not likely to make a blunder like that, he says, there are plenty of other mistakes an unaware staffer can make.

            “Sighted people tend to speak too loudly to blind people,” he adds, “and they tend to try to take the blind person's arm, when most blind people prefer to take the sighted person's arm when being led.

            “But there's no reason anybody should know that, unless they get the right training.”

            Indeed, entire organizations now exist to help raise the consciousness of nondisabled workers.  One such group is Damon Brooks Associates, a Channel Islands, Calif., booking agency that deals exclusively with speakers who have disabilities.  A popular presenter in the Damon Brooks lineup is Glenn McIntyre, a former Oxnard, Calif. police officer who was paralyzed throughout most of his body following an auto accident.

            “I try to give people tools that they can use in their lives right away, that they can apply to both their professional and personal lives, so they don't have to put on one face for work and another one for their personal lives,” says McIntyre, who has spoken to governmental agencies and corporations, and has taught a human resource course at Cal State in Northridge.

            “I try to get them to where they're confident, instead of (this kind of sensitivity) being just a theory in their heads.”

            Such training is sorely needed, says Rob McInnis, coordinator of the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based California Business Leadership Network, who has spent the last two decades working to overcome “misinformation and too commonly-held misconceptions” about people with disabilities.  One of the chief ways to achieve that end, he says, is to make sure human resource executives have the facts.

            “Conducted by DuPont, a 30-year study showed that performance by workers with disabilities is equal to or better than nondisabled peers,' he says.  “Employees with disabilities have a 90 percent above-average job performance, with safety and attendance records that were far about the norm as well.  According to a 1999 survey of Society for Human Resource Management members, 73 percent of companies report no cost increases attributable to extending health, life and/or disability coverage to employees or dependants with disabilities.”

            Honig adds, “Statistics are clear that disabled employees tend to be a much more loyal workforce, and since they stay with the company longer, and there's less turnover, knowledge and training has a higher return.  In addition, many disabled people tend to be folks who have had to work hard to overcome their disabilities.  By the time they come to work for you, they tend to be pretty determined and intense working people.”

            Still, the misconceptions remain.  A Gallup and Robinson survey of 800 adults found 15 percent of nondisabled respondents did not feel comfortable working for, or nearby, a person with a disability, McGinnis reports, “Unless companies properly educate their workforces,” he says, “there is danger that the performance of employees with disabilities will be needlessly restricted by their co-workers and supervisors.”

            Judy Young, director of corporate training at New York City's National Business and Disability Council, agrees.  “Attitudes are always a serious issue,” she says, “Legislation cannot mandate behaviors.”

Awareness Building

            Training to enhance disability sensitivity has been working well at the New York Life Insurance Co., where Angela Coleman is vice president of HR.  The company designed and developed an in-house program called Mutual Respect, and has been administering it for the past two years.

            “All new employees go through the program as part of our orientation.” Coleman says.  “The essence of it is that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity, and one of the topics within the program is disabled employees and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and how employees need to be sure they do not have misconceptions about what disabled workers can do.  We wanted to make sure that new employees were aware of our culture.  It's a terrific awareness-building program.”

            Coleman isn't alone in her accolades.  The Office of Vocational and Educational Service for Individuals with Disabilities recently presented New York Life with a Local Award of Recognition for taking special efforts to attract, accommodate and provide exceptional programs for employees with disabilities.

            “I think the program gives everybody a greater appreciation for the contributions disabled employees can make, and the realization that everyone has value and should be respected,” she says.

            The company's dedication to tolerance goes well past orientation, Coleman adds.  “We have someone designated as our ADA coordinator, who works very closely with managers as well as employees who are disabled.  That person also works with the National Business Disability Council and our local health department.  I think we do a very thorough job.”

            Coleman says the company is now working on expanding the program, creating a new seminar that would be geared specifically toward managers.

            “We think it's important that managers be alert to situations in which disabilities are developing,” she says.  “Employees are often so used to doing their jobs that they are pleasantly surprised when they find out that there are technologies that might help them do better.

            “For example, we had a case in which an employee developed a visual impairment, and had just gotten used to squinting at her computer screens.  She finally mentioned it to a manager, and was happy to have someone listen to her.

            “There are many, many of those stories at New York Life,” says Coleman.

Dismantle the Fears

            “Sensitivity issues are probably the most critical area of training to address when trying to improve a disabled/nondisabled co-existence, McInnis says.   “Companies can train their employees exhaustively about the business case for hiring people with disabilities, accommodation strategies, and effective communication and supervision, but none of it will produce results unless all their employees (recruiters, hiring managers and co-workers) are comfortable and confident about interacting with people with disabilities.”

            Sound like a daunting task? It doesn't have to be.  “There is no more powerful way to dismantle these fears and attitudes than face-to-face interaction between your employees and people with disabilities,” he says.  “Once I was asked by some senior managers about the most important part of a sensitivity seminar I was conducting for their employees.  I replied, “Lunch.”  It would be over lunch the disabled and nondisabled participants would be connecting on a personal level about family, vacation, hobbies and everything else we hold in common.”

            According to McIntyre, the former police officer-turned motivational speaker, one of the first slides he shows in his presentation “is a picture of a guy with his foot in his mouth.”

            “I once attempted to take a cab from the airport and the first question the cab driver asked was, “Why me?” he recounts as a way to illustrate his point.

            McIntyre travels with a companion dog, and because of that he is sometimes mistaken for being blind.  “I once had an airline attendant try to tell me, without being asked, where the food was on my tray.  That's the mistake a lot of people make: They see a person with a disability, and they assume he or she needs assistance.  It would have been far better if she had asked me, “Would you like some assistance?”  Wouldn't you like to be asked that?”

            Honig says the goal of the training should be to “acclimate the nondisabled.  Show them the technologies that the disabled person will use.  Most people are not aware of the technology that's out there, and when they see it they are completely in awe.  It helps build respect.”

            Uppermost on the minds of co-workers, Young adds, is a very human question:  Is the newly hired disabled person going to pull his or her own weight?  “They want to know, ‘Will I have to do more because this person will do less?'”  She says HR staffers should “reassure everybody that the person was hired because of qualifications.”

            “And I recommend that you do this with the disabled person present, so it doesn't look like you are talking behind (his or her) back,” she says.  “If you get the issue out in the open, you can usually deal with it.”

            Honig says when he has conducted sessions like this, he has found “the biggest question on the minds of many nondisabled people is, ‘How the heck am I (the disabled worker) going to do this job?  So I go through it very matter-of-factly, like I am making a presentation.  The response is, ‘Oh, that's fascinating!'”

            With open communication, people can begin to relax, says Honig.  “Ordinary conversations don't have to be so tense.  Sometimes somebody will casually ask me if I saw a particular movie, and then get embarrassed and say something like, “I didn't mean see.  I meant hear!'  It's okay to say that.  Blind people understand what you mean.  Yes, one should be sensitive, but don't be so overly sensitive that it becomes awkward.”

            Still, care should be taken. San Francisco-based attorney Mark Topliff offers customized workshops regarding respect in the workplace, employment law for managers and training for HR professionals regarding disability law.  She says a common question she gets is, “Can I ask the person what happened to cause him/her to be in a wheelchair?”

            “This is a personal, private issue for (disabled people),” she says, “and unless they have clearly indicated a desire to talk about it, it should not be asked.”

            Sometimes, notes Topliff, employers may hear things at these sessions they don't want to hear.  Another common question that comes up in her sessions involves employees who have diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis.  “They ask: ‘Can I refuse to work with this person because I'm afraid that I'll contract (his or her) disease?”  My answer is that if the employer has determined that it's safe for the employee to be in the workplace, then employees do not have the right to refuse to work with the individual.” 

Hiring Pitfalls

            While uncomfortable co-workers can make the disabled worker's job less pleasant, an uncomfortable manager with hiring authority can mean no job at all.

            “”Many top-level managers are prone to avoid rather than tap into the resource represented by people with disabilities,” McInnis says.  “These misconceptions include the notions that people with disabilities are underperformers and unreliable, that their accommodations are expensive, that they will increase workers compensation and insurance costs, and more.”

            “Hiring managers need to focus on each job's essential functions and the physical and mental requirements for the job.” Topliff adds.  “They should not prejudge what an individual can or cannot do based on their own assumptions.”

            Topliff cites an example of a manager hiring for a job that requires a significant amount of driving, and interviews an applicant in a wheelchair.  The manager should not assume the applicant can't drive, she says.

            “Managers with hiring authority need to remember to apply company practices consistently,” Young says.  “Ask questions that are only relevant to the person's skills.  For example, maybe you're interviewing a blind person.  If the job does not require driving, you don't have the right to ask how he or she will get to work.  You wouldn't ask the nonblind person that.”

            For many executives, says Honig, the real question is:  What's this going to cost me?  Honig has good news on that front.

            “In terms of accommodations—let's assume ramps and everything else mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, are already in place when you actually look at the cost of technology to accommodate a disabled person, it is, relatively speaking, very inexpensive.

            “And remember that in exchange for providing these tools, you are getting a very loyal (member of your) workforce who is going to be worth the money; the return on investment is well worth the initial costs.”

            The key is to embrace the spirit -- not just the letter -- of the law.  Topliff adds, “The ADA is all about leveling the playing field and dispelling myths, fears and stereotypes about what disabled individuals can contribute to society.”

            But in addition to being the right thing to do, such a training program can help a company defend itself legally, Honig says.  “Do everything you can to create a culture in which people are going to be viewed on their merits and abilities,” he advises.  “Then, if litigation arises, you can say, ‘Look, we have these programs in place.  We're doing everything we can.'”

            At Sears department stores, new employees get crash courses in working with disabled workers (and in assisting disabled customers) as part of the Chicago-based chain's diversity training.  Individual stores are also encouraged to build relationships with local agencies to help place people with disabilities.  That's a challenge that's been answered at the Sears store in Braintree, Mass., where General Manager Chuck Ferreira oversees human resources functions at the store as part of his duties.  Ferreira reached out to Work Inc., a Quincy, Mass.-based organization that helps prepare and train people with disabilities to get jobs.

            “We now have about 15 people working in the store who came to us from Work Inc.,” Ferreira says, and that has led to some changes in the store's diversity training.

            “We try to give the team some general guidelines on how to work well with them,” he says, “We stress that these workers are going to add value to a job, but they may need some support.  It's mostly common-sense things.  If a person has a hearing disability, then we explain it's important they face that individual when they talk to (him or her.)”

            Ferreira says the result has been positive both for the nondisabled and disabled workers.  “Both groups have become far more open and comfortable with one another,” he says.  “And for the nondisabled employees, it's been an education.  They've seen people doing more than they thought they could.”