Issue One: The True Cost of Accommodation

Accommodating employees with disabilities is a hot topic in a rapidly diversifying employment marketplace. But what you may not know is that making accommodations in your workplace actually costs much less than you think. And it's a decision that can boost your bottom line in ways you never imagined. Monster and the Department of Education have partnered to give you a chance to get the facts on accommodating current -- and future -- employees with disabilities.

Putting a Price on the Changes You Make

At first blush, the decision to make changes in your workplace to accommodate a new hire with a disability or current employees who have special needs sounds like an expensive one. But that assumes you'll need to make accommodations in the first place. According to a March 2003 Rutgers Work Trends survey of employers, 73 percent of employers reported that their employees with disabilities did not require any accommodations to work productively.

But what can you expect to spend if an employee does need accommodations? The answer is likely much less than you think -- if anything at all. There are substantial accommodations that can make a huge difference for employees that cost nothing: flexible work schedules, more frequent breaks, assigning a workstation close to the restroom or elevator or offering the option to telecommute among them. Even opening your office to a service animal can make your organization attractive to a host of talented candidates whom you might not have previously considered.

Small change makes a big difference: According to the Work Trends study, 61 percent of workplace accommodations cost less than $500. This is a small investment considering the talent you'll be able to welcome to work with you.

Enhance Technology to Increase Productivity

Among the accommodations you might consider are innovative productivity tools that rely on technology to help people with disabilities get through the workday smoothly. And while they're ahead of the technology curve, many of them are also short on cost.

For those with spinal cord injuries, ALS and other disabilities, controlling a mouse or other pointing device can be difficult. NaturalPoint's trackIR is an infrared device that uses head movements to control and interact with what's on the screen. What's more, the device's low cost -- $199 -- and portability make it an attractive option. Employees who have limited use of their hands may benefit from the Halfkeyboard, developed by Matias Corp. Roughly half the size of a traditional keyboard and only $295, the Halfkeyboard allows users to touch-type with only one hand -- even having clocked speeds of up to 64 words per minute.

Blind employees might benefit from using the VoiceMate voice-operated PDA, which provides a phonebook, voice notepad, appointment book, alarm clock and calculator. To find a phone number, simply speak the person's name and VoiceMate will speak the number, or if you prefer, will send touchtone signals to a phone to dial the number. At $295, it's an affordable productivity tool that's no more expensive than many other PDAs.

History has shown us that the accommodations developed for people with disabilities ultimately become technologies upon which many more of us depend -- talking ATMs, automatic door openers, accessible photocopiers, Good Grips tools and voice-recognition software are things that many of us now use daily. Indeed, investing in technology today to accommodate employees with disabilities will help prepare your organization for future enhancements.

Accessibility Opens Doors

While changes to your infrastructure may seem more costly than productivity tools, being smart about "position and proximity" may solve many accessibility challenges. Offering a parking space, especially one close to the entrance, can make a real difference for an employee. So can assigning a workspace close to restrooms and common areas. Careful consideration about where copiers and fax machines are located can make a world of difference -- pulling them out of corners and placing them on lower counters or cabinets can make them more accessible for all.

More expensive changes to your workplace may include outfitting your office with adjustable and ergonomic workstations and other office furniture. These will help accommodate employees who use wheelchairs, those with back problems, arthritis and other conditions. But adjustable, ergonomic furniture is also good news for all employees, offering a customized fit to help people of varied sizes be more comfortable -- and productive -- at work.

As a business wishing to accommodate employees with disabilities, you may be entitled to tax credits and deductions that might help you defray the costs of investing in physical changes to your workplace.

Accommodate Employees and Attract Customers

Accommodating employees with disabilities makes sense for your business. In fact, making your organization disability-friendly can boost your market share and enhance public opinion about you. The Solutions Marketing Group's Disability Market's Profile found that 54 percent of households pay more attention to and patronize businesses that feature people with disabilities in their advertising. Which just goes to show that that building a reputation as "disability-friendly" helps bolster customer support -- which may ultimately translate to increased business for you.

If you work in an industry in which your customers are using the same spaces as your employees, it makes sense that enhanced accessibility will enable you to attract new customers. They'll benefit from the accommodations originally intended for your employees. In fact, according to the National Organization on Disability, increased access provisions enabled hotel and hospitality revenues to increase by 12 percent. That's good business.

You don't have to build your workforce alone; help is just a phone call -- or click -- away.

There are scores of resources available to help you meet the needs of current and future employees with disabilities. Among them:

Other Web sites can assist you to accommodate employees while maintaining productivity and profitability. Below are some samples: