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A Complete Guide to Hiring Employees With Disabilities

A small-business owner living with cerebral palsy offers advice on interviewing, hiring, and working well with folks with disabilities.

"When you hire someone with a disability, it gives the person with a disability confidence and self-worth, but most importantly, it proves they are like everyone else," says Justin Farley, founder of UNlimiters, which sells solutions to help those living with disabilities overcome their challenges.

But that's not why he feels small businesses should give this easy-to-overlook applicant pool a closer look.

Those with disabilities often have unique skills and perspectives that the right business will find invaluable, he told Inc.com in an email interview (Farley himself has cerebral palsy, which affects his speech). "Those who know me will often say that I was born an entrepreneur because I was constantly adapting things or situations to work for me. This is the case for most living with a disability; they are experts at overcoming obstacles," he writes.

Companies can take advantage. "I recently heard a story about a recycling company in Colorado that hired mostly employees with autism," he offers as an example. "With a 100 percent retention rate, this company has recognized that people with developmental disabilities are meticulous and are extraordinarily honest, which are the exact qualities a distribution center would want in an employee."

Stories like that might convince you that giving those living with disabilities a chance isn't just the right thing to do but also good business. But that still leaves you with lots of questions about how to best address their needs and integrate them into your team.

How to Handle the Interview

When someone with a disability comes in for an interview, how should you address (or not address) his or her possible physical challenges? The first things to get straight, Farley insists, are the legal constraints in this area.

"It's important to do your research and be familiar with relevant laws. According to ADA [the Americans With Disabilities Act], the interviewer can only ask about a disability if the person has an obvious and visible impairment," he explains. If the person does have such an impairment, Farley's advice is emphatic: Just ask about his or her abilities and any possible accommodations he or she needs to succeed!

"If an employer asks a potential employee if he or she will need any modification or support, it will do two things: It will take the pressure off the employer to guess what modifications will be needed, and the employee will be at ease knowing they will have the correct accommodations in the workplace to be the best they can be," he insists.

Beside these basic points, Farley's main advice for interviewers is to check their preconceptions. "An interview situation can be frustrating because having a disability means you are not always sure how you are going to be treated or perceived. Because I speak slowly and walk differently, it often takes extra time for someone to realize that I'm not intellectually impaired. Sometimes people tune me out after hearing me speak. Hiring managers should leave their assumptions at the door and approach the interview as they would any other," he says.

On the Job

You've decided that the best person for the job happens to also be living with a disability. Great! Now you just need to settle the new hire into his or her new team and role. While Farley stresses that special treatment is neither needed nor wanted, addressing colleagues' questions head on is often a good idea.

"In the past, with my permission, we have held a quick meeting to tell everyone about my disability and allow people to ask me any questions they wanted. This approach worked well because it confronted the elephant in the room," he explains. "After the meeting, everyone felt more comfortable, including me." Farley has also seen an employee with a disability hand out a pamphlet with information about his condition. Whatever method you use, fight discomfort with education and do it quickly.

Farley also reminds business owners that an employee's disability is no reason to hold back on feedback or sugarcoat the truth about areas in need of improvement. "Constructive feedback is important for the growth of any employee, and must be approached in the same way for an employee with a disability as with any other employee. It would be a shame to unnecessarily give that employee slack due to having a disability and not providing the feedback they need to excel," he adds.

Common Mistakes

Out of simple unfamiliarity, even the best-intentioned business owners may make mistakes when it comes to job candidates with disabilities. The most common of these, Farley feels, is focusing more on the disability than the ability. "The instances in which small-business owners most often slip up are the same things I see in interactions with the general public; they focus too much on what the person can't do instead of seeing what they can do. If you see the disability as a strength and apply it to your industry, you will start to see obvious, innate abilities people with disabilities have," he reminds entrepreneurs.

And once you start looking at folks in this light, small businesses can be ideally placed to make use of their strengths. "Small businesses are ideal work environments for those living with disabilities because they may be more flexible and readily adaptable," he says. Though big companies generally have more resources, they "may have a harder time adapting given that they are in fact larger and can have more difficulty in communicating throughout their employee network."

Whatever the size of the company, a willingness to communicate and an open mind are key. So next time someone living with a disability walks into your interview room, make sure you show up with both.

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Last updated: Aug 25, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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