Many organizations do not have the support needed to help individuals with disabilities thrive in the workplace. In episode 17 of our podcast, “Bring Out the Talent,” we discussed this important topic with Bonnie Rivers, Director of Employee Relations at Work Without Limits. Bonnie discusses how their programs work, the training programs they offer, how to address neurodiversity in the workplace, and how leaders can effectively support employees with disabilities.
In this blog, we share some key points leaders can use to inspire a more diverse workplace.
Q: Can you explain Work Without Limits and what services you provide?
A: Work Without Limits is an initiative out of Commonwealth Medicine, which is the consulting arm of UMass Medical School. We are a nonprofit that lives within the larger UMass Medical System. Our focus is very mission-driven. Our focus is to increase the employment rate for individuals with disabilities. We do that in several ways, mainly through a very large network of employers, educational institutions, employment service providers, state, and federal agencies, and of course individuals with disabilities and their family members. We offer a lot of services to meet a variety of needs. For businesses, we are focusing on helping them actively recruit people with disabilities, both as employees and in their supply chains, and to give employers a comfort level with a disability, which can often be lacking. We work with individuals with disabilities who are seeking jobs and partner with employment service providers. We provide counseling to individual job seekers with disabilities, many of whom fear that if they are collecting public benefits like Supplemental Security Income or Security Disability Insurance, they may lose them.
Q: What type of training do you offer organizations on disability inclusion?
A: I deliver most of our training to businesses or organizations. I have colleagues who deliver training of a different kind to individuals with disabilities, their family members, and employment service providers. We can also help individuals understand the very complicated Social Security system. As far as our training for employers, we deliver it both in-person and virtually. It’s a fantastic place to start for organizations that are saying, “We’re not doing anything around disability inclusion. We know we should, but we don’t know where to start.” We have a course called Disability Awareness, which is the value proposition for organizations to include individuals with disabilities on staff, as suppliers, and as customers or clients.
Q: What are the biggest challenges that workplaces are facing when trying to increase their disability inclusion capacity?
A: Many organizations will come to us and say, “Our focus this year is increasing the number of employees we have on staff. Can you help us find candidates?” Their talent acquisition team may not be educated on interviewing individuals with disabilities, and unfortunately, there’s so much stigma unfortunately packed around disabilities. Assumptions are made about what people can and can’t do just because of what they look like or the way they interview. If you have a talent acquisition team or recruiter who isn’t educated on that, you could be turning away great talent. Organizations get frustrated because they are wondering, “Why aren’t individuals with disabilities applying or identifying as an individual with a disability?” If your website isn’t accessible, someone who has a visual impairment, for example, may not even be able to access your job descriptions.
Q: There is an increased awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace. Can you explain how Work Without Limits works with an organization that would like to become more inclusive in this area?
A: Work Without Limits prides itself on being a generalist in the space of disability. We are not specialists in one area. We have a very large contingent of what we call community partners. We have close to 75 now. Community partners are organizations that are employment service providers, state agencies that work directly with individuals with disabilities, and are specialists in their fields. When we hear from an organization or our collective business network and they say, “This is what we need, this is what we want to talk about,” if it gets specific around neurodiversity, people who are hard of hearing or have a visual impairment, then we start digging into that specific disability. We reach out to our community partners and bring them into the discussion, help conduct educational webinars, and make warm introductions to these organizations which is a huge benefit.
Q: Certain jobs might have requirements that somebody with physical disabilities can’t do. How can you determine whether a particular job description might not be the right fit?
A: Take somebody who’s blind and they’re interviewing to be an engineer, for example. If you don’t have an educated recruiter, the recruiter is going to be sitting there asking, “How the heck can this guy be an engineer? He can’t see.” Instead, you should ask questions like, “Mr. Engineer, do you want to be with or without a reasonable accommodation? Can you provide A, B, or C? This job requires using spreadsheets, talking on the phone three hours a day, attending in-person meetings, and managing Zoom.”
So, with (podcast says with our without) a reasonable accommodation, can you please describe to me how you would accomplish those tasks?” Those would be the questions you ask. As a recruiter, you have a job description in front of you. If it’s a well-written job description, you have key responsibilities that are required components of the job, and those are the questions you’re asking. This job requires A, B, and C. Can you explain to me with or without-does it say without too? Doesn’t make sense (yes it says without because you’re asking the question can you do this task with or without a reasonable accommodation) a reasonable accommodation how you would do that? That question is for every candidate, not just somebody who has a disability, because so many disabilities are not obvious.
We would never want to assume that someone can or can’t do something. If they are interviewing for the job, they should be able to speak to either past employment history, which for individuals with disabilities is typically very challenging. The unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is two times higher than it is for those without. They are not going to have as many past employment opportunities to speak to. So, it’s important to say instead, “Can you tell me about your skills? Why do you think you’re qualified to do this job?”
Q: How has COVID affected the way that you’re doing the training?
A: We have gone fully remote with our training. I can now deliver it in person if an organization wants that. There is a silver lining to COVID for individuals with disabilities – it’s done many positive things. A huge barrier for individuals with disabilities is transportation. For some individuals with disabilities, this is the best thing that could have happened because it takes transportation out of the mix. Additionally, COVID has normalized the conversation around mental health. We’re all a lot better at checking in with one another and saying, “How are you doing? How are you feeling? You seem off today. Is everything OK?”
COVID has also brought many technology tools that help from an accessibility standpoint such as Zoom, Teams, WebEx, and whatever people’s platforms are to communicate. Closed captioning and live transcription have become much more frequent, and much more normalized too. It’s helpful to all of us – whether we have a disability or not – but especially for those who may be hard of hearing. They are now able to see closed captioning on meetings because many of these technology platforms have it built in.
Q: Work Without Limits has a job board to help people with disabilities find a job. Can you tell us more about that?
A: I mentioned we have community partners earlier. One of our community partners is Our Ability, which is out of New York State. Our Ability is owned by Adobe, which is a disability-owned business enterprise. Many people have heard of women-owned businesses, veteran-owned businesses, and people of color-owned businesses. They are disability-owned businesses. So, John Robinson is a certified disability-owned business and created Jobs Ability. We have partnered with him to market Jobs Ability, which is a job board for individuals with disabilities in New England, and the national region for him as well.
Individuals with a disability seeking employment can check out our website, workwithoutlimits.org. Click on that Job Board tab and create your profile. There’s no cost. Employers can certainly post their jobs there too.