Beneficial State Foundation Perspectives

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Inclusion drives innovation: how we can shift societal attitudes toward disabilities


Michael Steen is Beneficial State Bank’s Senior Credit Analyst in Portland, OR.

Along with family, friends and a myriad of community organizations that are integral to the human experience, employment offers an essential avenue to connect with one another.  It oftentimes is a core component of one’s identity, providing meaning and a sense of fulfillment.  A workplace can provide structure for people to utilize their talents, enhance skillsets and celebrate accomplishments with team members. And it goes without saying that a paycheck provides the means necessary to purchase essential goods and services.

It probably does not come as a surprise that people experiencing disabilities have lower rates of employment, though the statistics are worth noting.  Though the unemployment rate for people experiencing a disability was “only” about twice as high as the overall population (7.5% vs. 3.9%), the labor force participation rate for people experiencing disabilities is 21%, compared to 68.7% for those without a disability. While some people experiencing disabilities choose to not enter into or remain in the workforce, many more prefer to be gainfully employed, but are discouraged from entering the job market

National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) encourages employers to reach out to people experiencing disabilities to apply for employment opportunities and educate themselves about reasonable accommodations (if any are needed at all) – creating a more inclusive workplace.

Just as we all are shaped by our environments, having a disability is simply one of a host of attributes that influences how we choose to make use of our time.

The impact of a disability varies widely depending on the type of disability (be it a physical, mental, or intellectual and developmental) and when the disability was acquired.  My life has been influenced by Cerebral Palsy (CP), a neurological disorder that can affect muscle control and tone, coordination and cognitive abilities.  While in my personal circumstance, the severity of the CP is minimal, disability is nevertheless an impactful component of my life – including one that has influence on my current occupation.

In reflecting on my career in banking, I have enjoyed opportunities to contribute to conversations around credit structures and policies while forming relationships with colleagues and customers.  As a team, we strive to provide credit and banking services that best fit the customers’ needs. By leveraging one of my own strengths (holistic analysis), I have contributed to the impact that Beneficial State has in the communities we serve. While I am mindful that certain tasks take longer than I would like them to, by building strong relationships and focusing my day to day responsibilities on those tasks that I can do most efficiently, I add value to the longterm mission of the bank.

This year’s NDEAM theme is “Inclusion Drives Innovation”.   As the U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta said, “Smart employers know that including different perspectives in problem-solving situations leads to better solutions. Hiring employees with diverse abilities strengthens their business, increases competition and drives innovation.”

As the old adage goes: necessity is the mother of invention.  Experiencing constraints are part in parcel with having a disability.  However, the drive to figure out how to mitigate certain constraints is a powerful impetus for innovation. Consider the following:

The invention of the typewriter: “In 19th-century Italy, sighted Pellegrino Turri and blind Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano struggled to find a way to send each other their secret love letters (Braille had not yet been developed)… After much deliberation, the lovers came up with a tactile solution: one of the first working typewriters. By treating blindness as a design challenge, they developed a revolutionary method for producing print by touch. Today, millions of people produce print through the touch of a key, and some of the fastest typists are touch typists.”

The creation of email services: “Mr. Vint Cerf is hearing-impaired, and his disability influenced his work developing the Internet. Back in the 1980s, deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals searched for a good alternative to communicating over the telephone. Mr. Cerf spearheaded the creation of the first commercial email service, allowing him to communicate with family members and colleagues without straining to hear.”

Despite the fact that the lived experiences of those with disabilities provide a unique perspective to solving challenges, and although the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was created to level the playing field for people with disabilities, major barriers to employment persist.  While the ADA prohibits discrimination in the workplace and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations, a cultural component unfortunately remains in many places.

Communities have a significant opportunity to advance the welfare of all people by shifting societal attitudes towards disabilities.

While an initial investment of time and resources may be required, companies that include people experiencing disabilities in their workforce often reap a competitive advantage. Take these examples into consideration:

According to the food company Carolina Fine Snacks, based in North Carolina, “The impact of hiring people with disabilities is that employee turnover dropped from 80% every six months to less than 5%, productivity rose from 60-70% to 85-95%, absenteeism dropped from 20% to less than 5%, tardiness dropped from 30% of staff to zero.” The company’s president said that “the new employee’s attitude was contagious: some of the non-disabled employees began to improve their performance.”

Leah Lobato, director of the Utah Governor’s Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities says, “When a customer sees a diverse workforce, it raises their comfort in your business. I hear a lot of stories where, ‘I tend to go to that store who has this bagger who happens to have a disability but who is one of the best baggers I’ve ever known.’ Or, ‘I happen to go to that company because I know that they hire individuals with cerebral palsy.’ Those aren’t things that we typically focus on, but [hiring individuals with disabilities] does create an atmosphere of more positive thinking and inclusion.”

Society as a whole benefits when all people are included in the workforce and are afforded opportunities to gain the skills needed to perform those jobs.

Currently, there are 6 million unfilled jobs across the United States, acting as a weight on GDP growth.  People experiencing disabilities could certainly fill a portion of these roles admirably, possibly with a little ingenuity.  For example, a practice known as “job carving” can be used, whereby a job coach analyzes work duties performed in a given job and identifies specific tasks that might be assigned to an employee experiencing a disability.  This tool enables a true “win-win” opportunity for employee and employer.

By using smart techniques such as “job carving”, allowing for reasonable workplace accommodations and flexible scheduling (which I am grateful to benefit from), employers are able to increase our social awareness of the differences that make us unique while capitalizing on our collective strengths. Through increased awareness from inclusive hiring practices, we enrich one another, making ourselves, the companies and the communities that we are part of, a little better.  This is realized from both the economic perspective and the shared experiences that bond us together.  As we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month, seek out those opportunities to engage with people who may be differently abled. Besides being the right thing to do, you never know who may bring about the next innovation that you just can’t live without.

This blog post reflects the author’s personal views and opinions, and does not represent the views and opinions of Beneficial State Bank and/or Beneficial State Foundation.