3 Simple Things PR Pros Can Do to Tap the Power of People With Disabilities

December 1, 2014

[alan schein/corbis]
[alan schein/corbis]

It is common for campaigns that create awareness of certain disabilities to garner well-deserved recognition at PR award ceremonies. At the same time, if you look around the room, you may be hard-pressed to find many PR professionals with disabilities themselves.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2013, 26.8 percent of people of working age (16 to 64) with disabilities had jobs. Within that group, the BLS reported that 34 percent of employees with disabilities work part-time, 15 percent work for federal, state or local government and many working people with disabilities are self-employed.

The BLS revealed that employees with disabilities are more likely to be employed in production, transportation and material-moving occupations and less likely to work in management, professional and related occupations. More to the point, the BLS reported that “workers with a disability were less likely than those with no disability to be employed in private wage and salary jobs.” The bottom line is that the PR profession is not hiring people with disabilities in significant numbers.

Some communications managers may be missing the fact that candidates with certain disabilities may provide benefits to your organization. These are individuals who may provide talents, skills and perspectives you won’t find anywhere else, and who may also provide cost-effective, reliable solutions to your work-force management challenges.

Imagine the power and effectiveness of a communications program centered on epilepsy if a member of the team actually had epilepsy. Imagine if a team charged with implementing a program on mobility issues actually had a team member who used a cane or a wheelchair. Or what if a campaign that was centered on hearing deficits had a member of the team with a hearing challenge?

Common misconceptions

Perhaps the root of the problem is the term “disability,” which suggests someone has specific limitations or has difficulty performing some tasks. While it is true that a disability can provide job-specific challenges, it’s far too easy to overlook the kind of contributions people with disabilities can make.

Another key factor is that “disability” can refer to any number of things — from challenges you can see to those you cannot. It’s impossible to draw the blanket conclusion that all people with disabilities can do the same things in the same way as everyone else. But that’s not to say they can’t do some things even better. As a manager, you have to think creatively and be open to working with each employee’s situation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 knocked down certain barriers in the workplace. Nevertheless, the key to employability, as well as accounting for the ongoing challenge of helping disabled employees achieve maximum on-the-job effectiveness, can be summed up in one word: accommodation.

For example, thanks to the ADA, certain accommodations must be made in public spaces and facilities to give physical access to people with disabilities. A reasonable accommodation for someone who uses a wheelchair and who works in a building without an elevator is that he or she can work in an office on the ground floor where the employee can best gain access.

Compliance with the ADA is one thing, but tapping the deeper value the employee brings to the table can be quite another.

Here are three simple accommodations you can easily make that can broaden the pool of valuable candidates for your workforce:

• Telecommuting:

This isn’t just for work-life balance anymore. By giving someone with a specific disability the chance to work from home part-time or full-time, you may get an employee with more experience and knowledge than you might find elsewhere — one who is so dedicated that he or she will have a positive effect on reducing employee turnover rates.

The PR business has many job responsibilities that can easily be performed by telecommuting, from writing and media relations, to research and social media administration. It behooves any organization to consider the benefits of this kind of arrangement.

• Parking and transportation:

Depending on where the workplace is located, parking and transportation issues can pose significant obstacles for some solid job candidates with disabilities. If you are willing to be flexible and make some accommodations, then you may be able to attract a strong employee who happens to have certain mobility issues.

This type of accommodation can be little more than the ADA-compliant practice of having an accessible parking space near the front door and a wheelchair ramp. What can be budgeted as part of the overall compensation package is the specific leasing of an accessible parking space nearby so that the employee knows it will always be open. In turn, you can rely more readily on that employee.

If the employee uses public transportation, then there may be times where you can arrange to use a taxi or limo service for late nights or busy periods.

Sometimes the accommodation may be as simple as providing flexibility in office hours so that the employee doesn’t have to compete for parking spaces or seats on the bus during peak periods. Simply providing a disabled employee with a more adjustable schedule can make all the difference.

• Tech support:

The third accommodation is actually more than one. Tech support is a catchall for the full range of tech-driven accommodations. These could include larger computer display screens, the use of specific audio technologies for employees who may have vision challenges, setting up television screens in the office for closed captioning for those who may have hearing difficulties and video-conferencing support for those who telecommute.

There are many experienced communications professionals with some form of disability. These individuals have unique perspectives on many of the issues we deal with in public relations every day. Sometimes all you need is the right accommodation?— one that is not always expensive and can be easy to implement.

In the end, a few simple considerations can translate into an improved competitive advantage and an effective communication process for your organization.

Tim O'Brien, APR

Tim O’Brien, APR, owns O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice in Pittsburgh, and hosts the “Shaping Opinion” podcast. Email: timobrien@timobrienpr.com. Twitter: @OBrienPR.

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