Why Your Business Should Hire Workers With Disabilities

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Helping adults with disabilities expand their work skills can be a win-win for small business owners.

Valuable employees can come from unexpected places. In the war for talent, small business owners are finding workers through unconventional channels, such as by hiring adults with disabilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities fell from 9.1 percent to 7.1 percent between January 2022 and January 2023. That reduction of 2 percentage points represents an even larger decrease than that of people without disabilities, which saw unemployment drop from 4.2 percent to 3.7 percent over the same period.

The reason for the increased employment of people with disabilities? It’s just good business.

According to a 2018 study of 140 U.S. companies by Accenture, businesses actively employing people with disabilities generated 28 percent higher average revenues than those that did not, and profit margins that were 30 percent above non-disabled workplaces. What’s more: employees with disabilities who are happy in their jobs are likely to stay in those positions for much longer than their non-disabled peers. A 2018 study found that companies that hired adults with disabilities improved their retention and reduced turnover.

“If an adult with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) starts a job at a business that they’re passionate about and they find the work engaging, they’re likely to stay on for years. Just by being there, they can improve the whole culture of a company,” says Connie Minden, co-founder of Boulder-based nonprofit The Ramble Collective. Ramble operates a network of community-based programs focused on providing opportunities for adults with IDD to learn job skills and find work at an employer who fits with their unique interests and skills. Minden founded the company in 2014 with her husband Andy after being frustrated by the lack of quality employment opportunities for their daughter, who has an an intellectual and developmental disability.

Many adults with IDD take part in “supported employment” programs where they work jobs that aren’t customer-facing, often in back rooms or before businesses open, such as rolling silverware at a restaurant. According to the Mindens, not only can this type of work be incredibly isolating, but historically it’s often paid well below minimum wage. Federal law provides employers with 14(c) certificates, which permit businesses to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage. Some states have limited the ability of companies who do business with the state to make use of these 14(c) programs, but federally it remains unchanged.

Determined to be part of the solution, the Mindens created the rubric for a multi-step, paid apprenticeship program for adults with IDD, with the end goal of eventually placing those adults into work environments of their own choice.

Once apprentices join the program, they begin learning the “soft skills” of employment, including being on time, dressing appropriately, and maintaining eye contact. After achieving a set number of goals, apprentices begin prepping for employment at a company in line with their personal interests. Following an interview process to determine what kind of company and position would be a perfect fit, they are given help applying to jobs online and are taught what to expect ahead of job interviews. When an apprentice is hired by a new company, a job coach is sent to the workplace alongside the apprentice, in order to learn the ins and outs of the new job and create a training plan.

“Job coaches are a huge incentive for businesses to utilize local apprenticeship programs,” says Connie, “you’re basically getting two employees for the price of one.”

State governments also offer financial incentives for taking part in similar apprenticeship programs and hiring employees with disabilities. For example, New York State provides an Empire State Apprenticeship Tax Credit, worth up to $6,000 per year, for every registered apprentice hired at a business.

To start the process of hiring an apprentice, check the Department of Labor’s listing of registered local partners, or get in touch with your state’s apprenticeship office.

“It’s a true value-add for businesses,” says Andy Minden of the benefits of hiring employees with disabilities, “customers develop real connections with these employees, and that translates to repeat business. It’s a virtuous cycle.”