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Disabled Rights Activist's Group - Together We CAN Make a Difference!

"Companies Reach Out to Workers with Disabilities"

by Paula Santonocito.

A new report indicates a growing number of companies are forming public-private partnerships in order to promote the hiring of people with disabilities--and these partnerships are leading to increased employment opportunities for this often-overlooked segment of the population.

The Conference Board report, "Innovative Public-Private Partnerships: Promoting the Hiring of Workers with Disabilities," points out that, while there is still more to be done in order to achieve parity for people with disabilities, leaders in the public and private sectors have made significant inroads in overcoming barriers that have traditionally kept more than one-sixth of working-age Americans out of the job market.

Approximately 50 million Americans have a disability. Although this translates to one in five people, the report notes that, under U.S. Department of Justice regulations, the term "disability" covers a broad category; it includes speech, visual and hearing impairments, mental retardations, epilepsy, and other conditions as disabilities.

Federal government at the forefront

The report indicates that the U.S. Department of Labor's newly established Office of Disability Employment Policy has been instrumental in encouraging the hiring of workers with disabilities by providing a mechanism for corporations to connect with potential employees with disabilities.

Pointing to a more than tenfold increase in the federal government's Business Leadership Network sites and their record number of member employers, it says participation in programs continues to increase dramatically.

Public-private partnership programs, which involve arrangements between companies and non-profit organizations, are typically administered by the Office of Disability Employment Policy, or derive resources from the DoL.

Examples of programs

The Conference Board report includes a sampling of partnership programs. It focuses on efforts by the State of Connecticut as an example of a successful government program at the state level.

From a corporate standpoint, the report cites Monster.com, the Boeing Company, and Verizon as companies that have taken the initiative in reaching out to workers with disabilities.

Assistance on the Verizon

But although public-private partnerships are now garnering attention, the concept is not entirely new. The communications company Verizon has a history of providing support for people with disabilities.

Judi Schillaci, director of Verizon community affairs for Long Island, N.Y., tells HRWire that the program cited in the report, a partnership between Verizon and Abilities Inc. known as Training 2001, actually had its beginnings in Albany, N.Y., in 1999.

Schillaci modeled the Long Island program after an arrangement Verizon's Albany location has with Northeast Career Planning, a non-profit organization providing services to people with disabilities. The Albany program brings people with disabilities into Verizon's e-learning program where they can take advantage of various training opportunities.

Using the Verizon Albany/Northeast Career Planning partnership as a benchmark, Schillaci worked with Abilities Inc., a non-profit organization that provides employment and outplacement services for workers with disabilities in partnership with the DoL, to start a program on Long Island.

Initially founded in Garden City in April 2000, the program was relocated to Verizon's Multi-Media Training Center in Patchogue the following year.

Providing training

Schillaci tells HRWire the program allows people with disabilities to participate in audio-visual, computer-based training that is supplemented with workbooks. Consumers, as Schillaci refers to program participants, learn alongside Verizon employees.

Consumers can take various courses that fall into one of two categories: technical or skill-related. Technical offerings include instruction in Windows, Internet, and web-based design, among others, while business skills courses include professional communications, instruction in conflict resolution, time management, and other topics.

Although courses usually take from half a day to three days to complete, all instruction is self-paced, which Schillaci notes is particularly beneficial to course participants.

"This is really a program that offers consumers an opportunity to enhance their training," she says.

Beyond training

In addition to training opportunities, Schillaci says there are other benefits to the program.

She tells HRWire that Training 2001 serves people with a wide range of disabilities, many of whom have not been in a work environment in years, if ever. She explains that, for these people, the prospect of getting to the Verizon center, interacting with Verizon employees in the workplace, and going to the cafeteria can all be quite daunting.

Yet, Schillaci says, invariably the on-site work experience builds confidence. "There's a sense of belonging, and I think you can't put a price on that," she says.

Ease of administration

In a continuing effort to expand reach, Schillaci says the program has recently been opened up to six other agencies. She explains that Abilities Inc. serves as training facilitator, and handles all requests and reservations for computer time at the Verizon center.

Schillaci says that although there may be times when space is not available, more often than not only half the e-learning center is utilized by Verizon employees.

And she points out this is likely the case at many companies. "Corporations have much to offer," she says.

Getting the word

Businesses seem to be getting the message that promoting the hiring of people with disabilities is good business. Among the reasons corporations cite for increased participation in public-private partnership programs are the need for diversity, reaching out to a larger talent pool, and "it's the right thing to do."

But the report also points out there are additional benefits to be gained from partnering in efforts to employ people with disabilities. It names Jennifer Sheehy, senior policy advisor for the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities, who provides the following benefits:

* Returning disabled employees to the workforce after an accident increases morale and reduces hiring and training costs;

* Hiring workers with disabilities generates goodwill with customers and employees and is viewed as "giving back" to the community;

* Reducing those on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Supplemental Security Disability Income (SSDI) benefits everyone that pays taxes, and companies bear the greatest tax burden;

* Disabled employees are dedicated to their jobs and loyal to the company that hires them; on average they take no more sick days than non-disabled employees and have better retention rates; and

* Disabled employees are natural problem solvers--a valuable commodity in business--because they often need to be creative on a daily basis to manage their own disabilities.

According to The Conference Board, the many advantages to public-private partnerships should spur even more companies to action.

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Contact: Judi Schillaci, director of Verizon community affairs for Long Island, email judith.e.schillaci@verizon.com.

Online:
-- The Conference Board, "Innovative Public-Private Partnerships: Promoting the Hiring of Workers with Disabilities,"
-- http://www.conference-board.org/products/researchreports/dpubs.cfm?pubid=R-1 296-01-RR;
-- Office of Disability Employment Policy, http://www.dol.gov/dol/odep;
-- Northeast Career Planning, http://www.northeastcareer.org/;
-- Abilities Inc., http://www.ncds.org/NCDS/cei/index.asp.

Related articles:
-- HRW Oct. 15, "Essential Functions and the Interactive Process: Have You Unwittingly Limited Your Labor Pool?";
-- HRW July 2, "Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao Initiates Wake-Up Call";
-- HRW June 12/00, "Being an Employer of Choice for People with Disabilities."

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