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Fix Attitudes and Bust Disability Myths

My husband is a physician. As often as he writes prescriptions, he also prescribes old-fashioned advice: "Attitude is everything."

It's true. The medical community isn't really sure how, but studies show that patients with positive outlooks get better faster. Attitude is everything for the workplace, too, especially when it comes to issues affecting workers with disabilities. Just like when a patient is confronted with an injury or illness, employers' lack of experience and information often nourishes negative attitudes. We need to change that.

People with disabilities are an overlooked pool of potential for employers. Fifteen years after the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect, only one-third of disabled Americans are employed, even though more than two-thirds of unemployed people with disabilities say they would like to work. I have often said we must turn this pool into an ocean of opportunity. How we do that depends on employers changing their attitudes about hiring people with disabilities -- and that means getting the facts straight.

I've compiled some of employers' most common questions about hiring workers with disabilities, as well as the most common myths still out there, and I've mined the Web to answer those questions and get the facts.

MYTH: If I hire someone with a disability, my worker's compensation insurance rates will skyrocket.

FACT: Employers' insurance rates are not based on whether or not workers have disabilities. They are based solely on the workplace's relative hazards and the company's accident experience. Supervisors report that workers with disabilities have higher safety rankings then their nondisabled peers, so there is no reason to expect rates to increase.

MYTH: Won't my medical insurance rates increase?

FACT: Employers are often surprised to learn that most disabilities do not require frequent ongoing doctor visits. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that an employer treat a worker with disabilities the same as everyone else and offer the same access to existing medical coverage as offered to other employees.

MYTH: Workers with disabilities will be absent more than others, and it will negatively affect my bottom line.

FACT: A DuPont Corporation study found that 85 percent of its employees with disabilities rated average or above on attendance. International Telephone and Telegraph surveyed a 2,000-employee plant and found that the workers with disabilities had fewer absences than their coworkers. Workers with disabilities are not absent any more than workers without disabilities.

MYTH: It is too expensive to accommodate workers with disabilities.

FACT: Actually, most workers with disabilities do not require any special accommodations. When accommodations are necessary, about 20 percent cost nothing, and 50 percent cost less than $500. There are a variety of national and community-based organizations that help employers identify low-cost or no-cost accommodation alternatives. Employers have always made adjustments in the workplace to accommodate employees' needs. That same flexibility should be extended to people with disabilities.

MYTH: Workers with disabilities take too long to get acclimated in a new job. Training them is too hard and expensive.

FACT: Every worker, whether disabled or not, will require different amounts of time to learn new job responsibilities. People with disabilities do not take longer to learn a new task than anybody else.

MYTH: Once on the job, workers with disabilities are hard to supervise.

FACT: A Harris poll found that 82 percent of managers said employees with disabilities were not harder to supervise than other employees. A supervisor who can successfully manage people can successfully manage people with disabilities.

MYTH: I'll have to make special transportation accommodations for employees with disabilities to get to work.

FACT: You are not required to do so. Workers with disabilities are capable of supplying their own transportation, and their modes of transportation are as varied as those of other employees.

MYTH: Workers with disabilities do not perform as well as workers without disabilities.

FACT: The employers I've talked to tell me that workers with disabilities are motivated, capable and dependable. Another DuPont study showed almost 90 percent of workers with disabilities received "good" or "excellent" performance ratings from their managers. Managers also felt that most employees with disabilities did their jobs as well as or better than other employees in similar positions.

MYTH: It is impossible to determine a fair salary range for workers with disabilities.

FACT: This is simple. Employees with disabilities should receive prevailing wages and benefits based on productivity and job performance.

MYTH: There is nothing I can do if an individual with disabilities is not the right fit or doesn't work out in my organization.

FACT: This is the statement everyone is afraid to articulate. They are really trying to say, "I can't fire a worker with disabilities if he doesn't work out." The ADA's intent is to ensure that individuals with disabilities are given the same opportunities and treatment as everybody else. Employers are not expected or encouraged to go easy on workers with disabilities. They should meet the same performance expectations and be subject to the same disciplinary actions as any employee. If they are not doing the job or are falling short of the workplace's criteria, they should be coached, counseled, disciplined and, if necessary, terminated based upon established policies. Just as individuals with disabilities deserve equal consideration in the employment arena, they must be held accountable to the standards and expectations of their employment.

Remember: Good attitudes are contagious, and employing people with disabilities generates goodwill and fosters positive attitudes among coworkers and customers. Hiring people with disabilities contributes to workforce diversity, which, in turn, contributes to the bottom line.

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