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Seeing Disabilities as an Asset in the Workplace

disability claimMany people identify Berkeley with the Free Speech Movement of 1960s, but few know that Berkeley was also a central player in the disability rights movement. Berkeley’s campus is where Ed Roberts — a student with quadriplegia — emerged as an outspoken advocate of the cause.

Peggy Klaus, a consultant to executives and organizations on leadership and communication, was recently invited to give a lecture for the Disabled Students’ Program at the University of California, and wrote about initial feelings of anxiety and discomfort at the prospect of speaking to an audience made up solely of people with disabilities.

After admitting her misgivings to Paul Hippolitus, the director of the program and a 30-year veteran of the Office of Disability Employment Policy of the federal Labor Department, she learned that her response was “Perfectly normal.”  As Hippolitus pointed out, “In this culture, nearly everyone is uncomfortable with disability” – including people with disabilities as well. Constantly subject to a public that stares at them or reacts with unease, people with disabilities can be made to feel highly self-conscious and develop a lack of self-confidence.

Students at the Berkeley School of Disabilities are no exception. This is the reason, according to Hippolitus, that many forego graduate school, and as a result delay opportunities to enter the work force.

Today, more than 20 years following the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the percentage of full employment among the population of people with a disability is only 17.9 percent. This compares with 63.7 percent for Americans without disabilities.

What might account for this lack of progress? It has been suggested that some employers fear that “reasonable accommodation” of the disabled will require extra time, resources and money. The federal Job Accommodation Network, however, shows that theses fears are baseless; many accommodations cost nothing or run just a few hundred dollars.

Rather than waiting for society to change, Mr. Hippolitus has developed a course on Professional Development and Disability, which focuses not only on the principles and practices of disability employment but also on strategies for navigating the 21st century American workplace.

For nearly any job candidate, excelling in the interview can be crucial to landing a job.

It is unlawful for employers to ask about an applicant’s disability. However, when disabilities are visible, they may still have concerns. Since applicants themselves are under no restrictions, many opt to simply address employers’ potential reservations head-on — an approach that is addressed in the Berkeley course. This not only diffuses those lingering misgivings, but also opens a space to talk about the skills required to manage a disability, like strategic planning and time management.

Peggy Klaus shared some of these hypothetical exchanges:

“To start with a line like, ‘You may be wondering how I could manage to travel as part of the job,’ means that job applicants can elaborate on how they manage the rigors of travel, given their limitations. In addition to talking about their work and academic experience, they can offer up ‘brag nuggets’ and stories — talking about the preparations they needed for a trip to Europe, for example, or to make an 8 a.m. class.”

If more Americans began to view disability as both a challenge and an asset, we would make some important steps toward fully utilizing the job skills of all workers.

If you have experienced disability discrimination or any other form of employment discrimination, contact an employment attorney at Emery Reddy today.

For legal advice and assistance with your L&I claim, contact a Seattle Workers’ Compensation Attorney at Emery Reddy. If the Department of Labor & Industries has required you to complete an Independent Medical Exam, we urge you to consult with an attorney prior to attending the IME. Finally, if your claim has been rejected, it is in your best interest to work with an experienced L&I attorney to appeal denied L&I claims.

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