I recently attended a one-day conference on employment of persons with disabilities. What made this conference different were the participants. The audience was made up equally of individuals in private business and those who work with people with disabilities who are seeking employment. Unfortunately there were not many individuals with disabilities or their families in attendance.

There were two types of employers present. First, huge corporations that have made a concerted effort to hire a significant percentage of people with disabilities. These are companies like Walgreens and TJX, the parent company of TJ Maxx, Marshalls and Sierra online.  Second, small companies that hire just one or two people. At the meeting this group was represented by a local drug store, a garage, and a credit union.

The huge corporations have made admirable strides in making accommodations for people with disabilities such as pictures instead of written signage, sit-down stations, water back-packs for those who need frequent hydration, conveyer belts that move up and down and building directions painted on the floor. But the people who go to work for one of these huge companies have to fit into the corporate model. The company develops the accommodations and the people with disabilities are hired according to their ability to function in the job with the available accommodations.

The smaller companies that hire one or two people with disabilities tend to ‘carve out’ a job within their respective settings. That is, they create a position according to abilities and needs of the person. It is much more personalized and they depend on formal and informal job coaches to support the person in their job.

Neither of these models is better or worse than the other. However, they both don’t work for everyone. That is why those of us who seek employment for people with disabilities need to be sure the individual is placed in a setting that fits them, taking into consideration their abilities and comfort level. All of us want a job we like and can do well, it is no less important for people with disabilities.

One more thing. I always cringe when I hear employers refer to people with disabilities as “reliable” and “always cheerful.” Those terms keep coming up. It has always seemed so patronizing and paternalistic to refer to reliability and cheerfulness as the primary consideration for hiring a person with disabilities. But, as I sat in this meeting and heard employer after employer cite these two qualities, I thought maybe we should use this to our advantage. I bet someone could come up with a neat slogan that we could use to capitalize on these descriptors.

Alison Lozano, PhD

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Disability in Focus