The Hidden Workforce: Individuals with Disabilities

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), people with disabilities represent the single largest and most diverse minority in the U.S. – and are a major untapped source of qualified job candidates. Only about one-third of Americans with disabilities are employed; however, more than two-thirds of unemployed individuals with disabilities say they would like to work, according to a study by research firm Harris Interactive.

The reason why this labor pool remains relatively untapped, say disability experts, is that most employers are unaware of the range of this group’s skills and/or do not know how to identify individuals with disabilities as potential employees. 

Hiring individuals with disabilities is not only the right thing to do from a social perspective; it’s a very smart thing to do from a business perspective. According to the DOL, employers enjoy numerous benefits when they hire workers with disabilities, namely:

  • Reduced training/recruitment costs and higher employee retention. Many individuals with disabilities come to employers already well trained, having honed their skills via one of the many nonprofit organizations aimed at increasing employment among this group. Also, people with disabilities are less likely to resign and move onto another job.  
  • Increased diversity in the workplace. As employees, individuals with disabilities add to the range of viewpoints businesses need to succeed. Businesses can enhance their competitive edge by taking steps to ensure that these individuals are integrated into their workforce – and customer base.
  • Increased productivity in work groups/teams. People with disabilities tend to motivate other employees. Managers often report that witnessing how peers with disabilities deal with adversity and overcome challenges inspires employees and enhances overall productivity and morale.
  • Tax credits. Companies can take advantage of several tax credits that encourage the hiring, retention, and accommodation of workers with disabilities. Examples include the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), which allows employers tax credits of up to $2,400 for each person with a disability hired; the Architectural/ Transportation Tax Deduction, which allows businesses an annual deduction of up to $15,000 for expenses incurred to remove physical, structural, and transportation barriers for persons with disabilities at the workplace; and the Small Business Tax Credit, which helps small businesses cover the cost of making their businesses accessible to people with disabilities, up to a maximum benefit of $5,000.

Debunking the “Costly Accommodation” Myth

When the topic of hiring individuals with disabilities arises, many well-meaning employers get nervous about what they feel will be expensive accommodation and equipment requirements. Such concerns, however, are unfounded. More than half of ADA (Americans with DisabilitiesAct)-required accommodations – including adjusting workstations, revamping doorways and implementing assistive office equipment – cost employers absolutely nothing, and another 30 percent cost less than $500, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO).

I know of several contact centers that hire visually impaired agents and use special assistive technology called JAWS (Job Access with Speech) to enable these agents to successfully perform their job. JAWS uses what is known as a screen reader to convert letters and words. A speech synthesizer then converts that digital information into sound. Words appearing on the screen are then literally read aloud. A JAWS user can access the same information available to sighted co-workers. While such technology is expensive, the contact centers that use it get a huge break on cost from the various state organizations they work with.

As one contact center executive from Hilton Hotels and Resorts says, “Providing assistive technology for agents who are blind or who have other disabilities certainly does not break the bank. Cost should NOT be a deterrent to organizations looking to hire people with disabilities.”


Resources for Tapping the Hidden Workforce:

Employer Assistance and Recruiting Network (EARN) –

Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP) –

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service –




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