Employing Persons with Disabilities

By Don Vena

Since the Americans With Disabilities Act passed in 1990, more than 50 million Americans living with disabilities have been affected in various ways. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, this represents nearly 19 percent of the population, or one in five U.S. residents. What are companies doing today to proactively recruit and train these employees? How does this benefit the bottom line for your business? What are the personal benefits to the disabled? Here’s what one employer has learned:

As a multi-talented worker, Mike McLeod worked as a machinist for Boeing, fixed cars as a mechanic for retailer Montgomery Ward, and even managed a restaurant of his own. Then tragedy struck. A degenerative eye disease set in, taking most of his vision with it. In spite of all of his employment experience, he couldn’t even get a job cleaning dishes.

Frustrated, he turned to his counselor at the Oregon Commission for the Blind who recommended he apply for a position as a customer service agent. Today, McLeod is smiling again because he’s employed by LiveBridge, a global customer service company and feels valued for his company contribution. His supervisor, Phaedra Duarte agrees, “Mike is one of the top performers and consistently exceeds his goals.”

McLeod, who has been with LiveBridge for two and a half years taking calls from customers of financial services clients, speaks more candidly, “Seven years ago I was driving and now I can barely find a bus. If it wasn’t for this place, I’d be sitting at home and rotting.”

When Duarte hired her first visually impaired employee for LiveBridge six years ago, she was comfortable with the idea because her own father has been visually impaired since birth. Her first visually impaired hire is still working for the company. Long tenure and a high work ethic are two reasons Duarte cites for hiring disabled workers.

There are special accommodations the company makes for disabled employees requiring a financial commitment and dedication to meet their specific needs. For the visually impaired, the accommodations include offering zoom text, Braille keyboards and training materials, guide dog etiquette, workstation modifications, large computer monitors, breaks, and flexible schedules.

Since the company handles customer service calls for several Fortune 500 companies, Duarte had calling scripts and training materials translated into Braille. Although employees with disabilities may require specialized one-on-one training or accommodations, they each have the same responsibilities and goals as other employees. “They are treated no differently,” Duarte said.

According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a free and confidential consultation service of the U.S. Department of Labor, in 85 percent of the cases it handles, employers find modifications for reasonable or no cost. JAN offers an online searchable database; more information is available by calling 800-526-7234.

Duarte is so impassioned about LiveBridge’s emphasis on accommodating disability that she added a vision-impaired person to the company safety committee and recently recruited her own father, Frank Duarte, to join the company’s team of visually impaired employees. As a customer service agent, he takes inbound calls for one of the country’s largest daily newspapers. Duarte’s father explains that he enjoys being a part of a group because they all know what each person is going through emotionally and physically.

According to Duarte, disabled employees consistently perform at or above goal. She also noted that visually impaired people in particular use their voice and listening skills effectively. Occasionally the customer service calls require agents to up-sell additional services and they are trained to listen for the reasons why a customer has called in the first place. This includes listening for sound effects such as a crying baby in the background or sounds that indicate they are in a hurry. These skills result in a high overall up-sell rate.

“Personally, Duarte adds, “what I enjoy most is their spirit. It’s inspirational to me that LiveBridge actively recruits and hires the disabled.”

According to Joanna Childress, a board member of the Oregon Business Leadership Network, businesses need to increase recruitment efforts to assist in placing disabled individuals until it becomes part of the corporate culture as it has at LiveBridge. Childress also recommends contacting local, state, and federal disability commissions for more information and resources about hiring people with disabilities. The Oregon Business Leadership Network is an affiliated chapter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Leadership Network, a national organization that recognizes and promotes best practices in hiring, retaining, and marketing to people with disabilities.

Childress explains the benefits of hiring people with disabilities quickly add up for employers. “They quickly demonstrate they are more than capable, have a great work ethic, and are long term employees.”

LiveBridge works closely with the Oregon Commission for the Blind, State Vocational Rehabilitation offices, Department of Human Services, Age and Disability offices, Oregon Disability Commission and private organizations such as Oregon Easter Seals, St. Vincent de Paul’s, and Goodwill. The company is now one of the largest private employers of persons with disabilities.

The company is doing something right. It was honored in October during the National Disability Employment Awareness month with the Oregon Governor’s Award of Excellence for demonstrating outstanding achievements in improving employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Don Vena is Vice President of Human Resources for LiveBridge, Inc., a global customer service company.

Blind Etiquette

A few tips for interacting with people who are blind and their guide dogs:

When you meet a person who is blind:

  • Treat people who are blind or visually impaired as you would anyone else. They do the same things you do, but sometimes use different techniques.
  • If you were blind, you would want someone to speak to you in a normal voice. Shouting won’t improve a person’s vision.
  • Talk directly to a person who is blind, not through their companion. Loss of sight is not loss of intellect.
  • When entering or leaving a room, identify yourself and be sure to mention when you are leaving. Address the person by name so they will know you are speaking to them.
  • Don’t worry about using common, everyday words and phrases like “look,” “see,” or “watching TV” around people who are blind.
  • If someone looks like he or she may need assistance, ask. They will tell you if they do. If they are about to encounter a dangerous situation, voice your concerns in a calm and clear manner.
  • Pulling or steering a person is awkward and confusing. Avoid grabbing their arm or their dog’s harness.
  • Ask, “Would you like me to guide you?” Offering your elbow is an effective and dignified way to lead a person who is blind.  Do not be afraid to identify yourself as an inexperienced sighted guide and ask the person for tips on how to improve.
  • If you leave them alone in an unfamiliar area, make sure it is near something they can touch – a wall, table, rail, or so forth. Being left out in empty space can be very uncomfortable.
  • Be sure to give useful directions. Phrases, such as “across the street” and “left at the next corner” are more helpful than vague descriptions like “over there.”
  • In a restaurant, give clear directions to available seats. Your offer to read the menu aloud may be appreciated, but you shouldn’t assume that they would not want to order their own food.
  • When the food arrives, ask if they would like to know what is on their plate. You can describe the location of food items by using clock position: Your coffee is at 3 o’clock; the sugar is at 1 o’clock.
  • Be considerate. If you notice a spot or stain on a person’s clothing tell them privately (just as you would like to be told).
  • Leave doors all the way open or all the way closed; half-open doors or cupboards are dangerous. Don’t rearrange furniture or personal belongings without letting them know.
  • Be sensitive when questioning people about their blindness. This is personal information and boundaries should be respected.

The above information was provided by the Sensory Access Foundation (SAF). SAF’s mission is to assist people who are blind or visually impaired to obtain or retain competitive employment by providing the highest quality access technology assessment, computer training, job placement and accommodation services with the goal of achieving 100% job retention.

[From Connection MagazineJan/Feb 2004]

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