Meeting of March 15, 2011 - Employment of People with Mental Disabilities
Good afternoon Commissioners and General Counsel, and thank you for inviting me to give testimony today. I’m Ruby Moore, the Executive Director of the Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), the designated Protection and Advocacy System for People with Disabilities in Georgia. The GAO is also the host organization for Employment First Georgia, a broad policy change and technical assistance initiative to increase employment for people with significant disabilities in Georgia.
Employment of people with disabilities is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. I have generations of family members with psychiatric disabilities who have successfully overcome barriers to employment, often with little or no formal support, who have successfully worked in highly competitive jobs and careers, across business sectors including the arts, manufacturing, and healthcare.
I have 35 years of experience in the disability field including 31 years of helping people who are often seen as “unemployable” to find good jobs, to make a valuable contribution, and to advance their careers. I’ve worked in most of the United States, and a few other countries, to assist people leaving institutional settings to successfully live and work in the community. I ran an employment agency in Massachusetts for 16 years and started employment institutes in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New Mexico.
Within the legal context, I have been a court appointed expert in employment in dozens of federal court cases including landmark cases pertaining to people with mental disabilities.
In these contexts, I have had the opportunity to work with hundreds of employers, HR departments, co-workers, diversity teams, and many people with disabilities. To get right to the heart of the matter, I have learned that virtually Everyone with a Disability Can Work. I’ve learned that people with a wide range of disabilities can obtain meaningful employment based on their unique skills, interests, and gifts, as well as the needs of their employers. A common misperception is that people with disabilities have a limited scope of function or job duties they are capable of doing. This is simply not true. My experience has been that virtually every type of job can be done by a person with a disability, within every sector of the economy. This is particularly true, given the advances in assistive technology, job sculpting, workplace flexibility, and customized approaches to accessing and negotiating positions to meet employers’ unmet needs.
I’ve had the experience of helping people to find jobs who have very significant disabilities, including people with severe mental illness, autism, developmental disabilities, people who are deaf and blind, people with physical impairments, people coming out of long term institutionalization, people with behavioral support needs and people who are considered to be medically fragile.
I’ve brought with me a booklet of vignettes, describing people with disabilities and the range of jobs that they have. We have stories about people working in probably every available business sector today, including processing fish, pouring champagne in a gem gallery, building computer cable harnesses, decorating cakes, making and selling jewelry, doing electronics assembly, and becoming executive secretaries, assistant head coaches, published authors, and world renowned artists, to name a few examples. And people are starting their own businesses as well.I
n the near future, I hope to compile a national collection of You Tube videos of people and their employers telling their stories of employment across a wide range of settings. There are good examples all over the country. Even states that are not well known for doing a great job of hiring people with disabilities have examples of people doing good jobs that are working for the person and the employer. Again, these are a wide range of jobs, not just those known as stereotypic jobs for people with disabilities.
I understand that you are particularly interested in hearing about people with what you would call mental disabilities. I’m often asked, “What challenges do employers face in hiring and accommodating people with ‘mental disabilities?”
One of the biggest obstacles to employment is consciously- and unconsciously- held beliefs about people with psychiatric, cognitive or intellectual disabilities. I’ve come to understand that often it is hard to imagine people with significant disabilities working unless you have actually seen it. That is one of the reasons I’ve been compiling written vignettes and videos. And I think discussions like today’s are extremely important.
Another challenge is not knowing how to accommodate a person with a mental disability. But there are many resources available. For example, the Job Accommodation Network provides information and advice to employers about accommodations for people with all sorts of disabilities. When the Job Accommodation Network was initiated years ago, employers who were committed to making it work went to this resource to see how other employers handled similar situations. It was partially about their commitment to developing their workforce, disabled and non-disabled.
There are certain types of accommodations that people with mental disabilities might need. For a person with a cognitive or intellectual disability, it might require giving the person a bit longer to learn the job, or structuring the task or the environment to make it easier to learn the job tasks. This is not necessarily an added expense in the long run if the job is a good “fit” with the person’s skills, interests, abilities, and if the person is motivated to work in that particular company. Indeed, the initial investment might lower the costs of continually having to recruit and refill the position in the long run.
In addition, some of the things employers do to accommodate a person with a disability, improves the workplace for everyone.
My dad was an executive for GE, overseeing quality control and manufacturing. Years ago, when I was explaining how an environment and job tasks might be restructured to assist a person with a significant cognitive disability to do electronics assembly, I told him about methods for reducing the number of manipulations the person would have to do, reducing the discriminations that would be necessary, and systematically teaching the task using an “error free learning” technology. His conclusion was that would help all of his employees. And that it would reduce the number of errors, thus reducing overall production costs.
For a person with a psychiatric disability, a flexible schedule may be required in order to see a therapist or to go to doctor’s appointments, to support the person in their recovery. Sometimes people need time off for hospitalizations, which present similar challenges to the employer as non-disabled employees who go on family and medical leave or who have other reasons for being out of the workforce on a temporary basis.
Indeed, it often comes down to workplace flexibility. I’m reminded of a woman who is working as an executive administrative assistant in an oil refining company in the Gulf Coast, who needs to take time off, sometimes a few times a week, due to issues with her medications and effects of trauma she has experienced. But she is so skilled at what she does that her employer has committed to a flexible work schedule because his needs are also being met.
In the end, employers are accommodating people who are labeled and not labeled all the time. Employers are hiring people every day, without necessarily knowing it, who have “mental disabilities.” They have made provisions for people with psychiatric disabilities without realizing it. In fact, everyone needs performance enhancements. Employers make accommodations for skilled individuals who have no obvious disability; it’s not very different from accommodating a person with a disability. An employer wants as much functionality out of an employee as possible. This is true for all employees.
One other challenge for employers may be the fear of liability. Psychiatric disabilities sometimes generate particular fears about unknown risks. Job applicants often run into trouble if there are gaps in their employment history due to mental illness that show up on the person’s resume. Some employers have viewed their decision as: do I want to run the risk of potential liability of hiring a person with a mental illness? As soon as the question gets framed that way, however, the employer is focusing on management of risks that the employer has no reason to believe actually exist rather than looking at this individual’s talents and how they may address an unmet need in the company.
Perhaps the most important thing is to realize is that these difficulties are not about the person with the disability but about the organizational culture of the business, their management skills, and their orientation to human resources and personnel development. Good management skills and a commitment to focusing on real personnel needs can prevent many unnecessary problems and surmount many barriers.
As an employer of people with disabilities for over 25 years, and having worked with hundreds of employers over the years, I know that Challenges Employers Face in Hiring and Accommodating People with Disabilities Can Often Be Easily and Creatively Addressed.
The first step is recognizing that for optimal performance in the workplace employers need to enhance employee performance through a variety of accommodations and not just for people with disabilities. It’s a commitment to developing your workforce. Employers who are less committed to workforce development and workplace flexibility are less likely to be successful in accommodating people with disabilities. Indeed, they will also likely have job retention issues with their non-disabled workforce. The corollary is if you get skilled at accommodating people with disabilities, you tend to improve the working conditions for everyone.
There are exemplary employers who have made this commitment -- companies that have created environments of flexibility and accommodation that have been very successful. Some examples are as follows.
People have to be qualified to do the job. But there are LOTS of qualified people with mental disabilities out there. The pivotal point is how the person is viewed when they come to apply for the job. If the environment needs to be changed a bit to allow the person to be successful, will that be considered in order for the person to be productive? Sometimes that involves the employer being able to recognize that the person has skills and abilities to meet an unmet need in the company that is not precisely what the posted job description requires. In that case, is there flexibility to address the unmet needs of the company through changing the job description to meet both the needs of the employer and the employee?
I’ve been an employer for over 25 years. At present 78% of our employees have disabilities, and we have employees with disabilities at every level of the organization, and representation on our Governing Board. I have phenomenal employees; and I’m practicing every day those things that I have given testimony about today.
I didn’t hire people out of charity; I hired people because they were the most qualified people for the job. In making accommodations for each one of my employees, everyone has benefited.
Some examples are:
Perhaps the most profound change to our work environment has been an intentional set of practices to create a culture based on respect, that allows a very diverse workforce to listen to each other, understand our similarities and differences, and to work harder to learn from each other as we build highly effective teams to do our organization’s work.
I am 100% certain that the investment we have made in our employees and the necessary performance enhancements and accommodations has benefited the company tenfold.