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Businesses Looking to Collaborate for the Benefit of People with Disabilities Without Regard to Competition

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In early 2010, Work Without Limits, a public-private partnership whose mission is to strengthen the Massachusetts workforce and advance work opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities, conducted five roundtable discussions with the primary purpose to engage employers and other stakeholders in an open dialogue on the opportunities and barriers that exist for businesses to include people with disabilities in their work places. A secondary purpose was to identify how businesses and government can work together to facilitate increased employment opportunities and outcomes for this particular pool of workers. In attendance were nearly 40 employer representatives from 27 Massachusetts companies, 20 state agency and nonprofit service providers, and 7 people with disabilities and/or family members.
One focus of the discussions included asking participants, particularly employers, to articulate the business case for employing individuals with disabilities. Roundtable participants reviewed current literature on the business case and were asked to build upon it. Currently, literature suggests that businesses benefit from hiring people with disabilities by:

  • Achieving an expanded talent pool for hiring1 that will also combat the estimated shortage of 10-15 million workers in the upcoming decade;
  • Increasing worker productivity2 by way of reduced employee turnover, increased morale and increased loyalty;
  • Increasing diversity3 as more than half of the working population will be minorities by the middle of this century, and individuals with disabilities represent the country's largest minority group;
  • Increasing market share4 as individuals with disabilities represent a market for goods and services with $220 billion in discretionary income and $1 trillion in aggregate income; and
  • Fostering good public relations5 as literature has found that consumers have positive attitudes towards businesses that hire individuals with disabilities.

Employer representatives at the roundtable discussions agreed that these are important factors in making the business case. They also identified additional ways that they specifically benefit by employing people with disabilities including:

Strengthened Capacity of the Workplace

A diverse workforce. With the increasingly nontraditional workforce, many employee populations are in need of diverse accommodations, such as for the aging, immigrants and the virtual workforce, and the ability to provide accommodations is a competitive advantage for any company. Also, sources have found that two-thirds of accommodations for employees with disabilities cost less than $500, with many costing absolutely nothing.6

Expected labor shortage. An aging population in sectors that already have traditionally lower work participation rates contributes to projected labor shortages.7 Corresponding to current literature, Massachusetts employers underscored that accessing the talent pool of individuals with disabilities provides a solution for an anticipated labor shortage, and broadening the talent pool prepares companies for the projected exodus of Baby Boomers.

Federal contract compliance. Employing people with disabilities allows companies to meet federal contract compliance as regulated by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP). Employers that engage in business with the federal government must comply with contractual obligations to provide equal employment opportunity. Businesses must also develop programs to recruit, hire, and promote employees who often face discrimination in the job market, such as people with disabilities.8 One employer specifically mentioned that federal guidelines require them to advertise to organizations that specifically include people with disabilities and veterans.

Competitive Advantage

Diversity leads to innovation. A diverse workforce brings diverse perspectives. Employers shared that employees with disabilities offer different perspectives and contribute to innovation within a company. Employing people with disabilities differentiates a company globally from those who do not. Hence, there is a distinct competitive edge gained by accessing this broader labor pool and hidden source of talent.
Leadership development. With the fostering of inclusivity within the workplace, managers report that they benefit as much as their employees with disabilities. Managers build flexible management abilities such as interpersonal skills and advance their own personal development and self-awareness. Managers also increase their technical skills in change management and job design while addressing employee needs such as requests for accommodations.9 As one roundtable participant stated, "It's a leadership lesson when people connect with their own sense of humanity."

Reinforced External and Internal Brand

Good corporate citizenship. Employers said there is value in building an external brand of inclusion, in demonstrating that they are a good neighbor and corporate citizen. Not only does that message attract individuals with disabilities as their customers, but it also helps to grow their workforce. Employers want to build a culture of caring and inclusion, and employing individuals with disabilities is a strong expression of a company's culture, values and mission. Inclusion is also an appealing message to employees who are parents of children with disabilities or who have other family members with disabling conditions.

Corporate social responsibility. The younger generations of employees have been raised with public school inclusion and as a result value corporate social responsibility. Employers who hire employees with disabilities shared that they experience a recruiting advantage with the younger generations. Corporate social responsibility sets a company apart and attracts desired talent.

As a result of the roundtable discussions, Massachusetts employers discovered that many businesses are engaged in activities aimed at hiring people with disabilities, and even those competing for the same consumer dollars are looking to collaborate for the benefit of people with disabilities without regard to competition. However, businesses also acknowledged that there is more they can do to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities including: developing an outreach and network strategy with each other to share resources, promising practices and benchmarking data; supporting inclusive human resource and diversity policies and practices within their own organizations; and working in partnership with state government to increase the number of public and private sector employers who want to differentiate themselves in the marketplace by becoming 'employers of choice' in the disability

Employers represented a variety of industries, including:

  • Biotech
  • Education 
  • Business Services 
  • Manufacturing 
  • IT 
  • Human Services 
  • Retail/Wholesale 
  • Medical 
  • Engineering 
  • Arts/Culture 
  • Government

Position titles represented:

  • Executive Vice President, Regional Vice President, Director, Manager, Account Executive, and Inventory Analyst
  • Vice Presidents, Directors and Managers of Human Resources
  • Senior level representation from Diversity, Staffing, Recruiting, Training and Development, and Employee Relations
  • Directors of Disability and Accessibility 
  • From the non-profit side several Executive Directors and CEOs as well as a state agency Commissioner and two Deputy Commissioners

Lastly, employers said some things should be done just because they have intrinsic value and not because of a cost-benefit analysis, and dealing with employees as people first takes away the "labeling" and the isolation.

About the authors:
Kathleen A. Petkauskos is Sr. Program Director and Anita Tonakarn-Nguyen is a Project Director for the Work Without Limits initiative housed at the University of Massachusetts Medical School's Disability, Health and Employment Policy group. Kathleen can be reached at kathy.petkauskos@umassmed.edu and Anita at anita.tonakarn@umassmed.edu.


  1. U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, Survey of Employer Perspectives on the Employment of People with Disabilities, Technical Report. Retrieved December 2009: http://www.dol.gov/odep/documents/survey_report_jan_09.doc.
  2. DePaul University, "Exploring the Bottom Line: A Study of the Costs and Benefits of Workers with Disabilities," 2007.
  3. US Department of Labor, Diversity and Disability. Retrieved December 2009: http://www.dol.gov/odep/archives/ek96/diverse.htm.
  4. Cheng, 2002. Retrieved December 2009: http://disability-marketing.com/newsroom/diversityInc.php4.
  5. Siperstein, et al. 2005, A national survey of consumer attitudes towards companies that hire people with disabilities. Retrieved December 2009: http://www.mdworkforcepromise.org/docs/business/National%20Survey.pdf.
  6. Retrieved August 2010: http://www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/fact/ada.htm.
  7. Retrieved August 2010: http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2009/11/art1full.pdf.
  8. Retrieved August 2010: http://www.dol.gov/ofccp/regs/compliance/fs503.htm.
  9. Retrieved August 2010: http://www.realising-potential.org/six-building-blocks/professional/.
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