Mitchell Langbert

Hiring People With Disabilities

Distinguish your accounting firm.

July 21, 2011
by Mitchell Langbert, PhD

When I teach my Brooklyn College students about hiring the disabled, I use a hypothetical case study:

The year is 1956. Your name is Daryl F. Zanuck, co-founder of 20th Century Fox. A recent Yale Drama School graduate and talented young actor asks for an interview. He says that he wants to be a star. The problem is that the actor is missing an eye. He had lost the eye because of a childhood tumor. You tell the actor that, although he has considerable acting ability, it is unrealistic for someone missing an eye to be a star. Only one actor in a thousand gets to play a leading role in pictures. Someone missing an eye must, unfortunately, be ruled out. A disabled star will not be able to draw a large audience. The answer is "no." Question: Did you (Zanuck) make the right decision?

The responses vary, but I usually get about 70 percent who say that, indeed, it would have been a mistake to hire a leading man with missing eye. Then, I show the class Peter Falk's photograph along with clips from his 1979 comedy The In-laws and from Columbo; in fact, the hypothetical case study approximates the real events of Falk's early career. On screen, Falk's missing eye did not pose a problem and many Columbo fans were probably surprised to learn of Falk's disability when listening to the news coverage of his passing on June 23, 2011. As a follow up, I show my students a clip of Lionel Barrymore in It's a Wonderful Life. The American Film Institute regards Barrymore, confined to a wheelchair due to arthritis, the sixth best villain in American film history.
In 1989, Julia Anderson wrote an important article in The Harvard Business Review about hiring the blind (Julia Anderson, "How Technology Brings Blind People into the Workplace." Harvard Business Review. March/April 1989). Anderson points out that by 1989 the advent of the microchip had been a "boon" to people who are visually impaired, with a sharp increase in opportunity for reading and writing. However Anderson said the chief impediments to hiring the blind and by implication people with all kinds of disabilities are psychological and social. To many of us, as it was to many casting directors who assessed Falk's prospects, hiring disabled people means taking a risk. We tend to fear working with people with disabilities because they are different from ourselves. Anderson writes, "In not knowing what to do, we risk appearing foolish … there needs to be demystification of disability." Overcoming our individual and collective anxiety is a milestone on our way to our own personal and to our work group's mastery and maturity. A manager who not only hires someone with a disability, but then works with his or her team to integrate the disabled person as a friend and an equal can reap significant benefits that outshine the mere giving a fair chance to a competent employee. It will enable the team to excel and mature. To do so, requires a small amount of effort and a conscious elucidation of our illusory trepidation about working with someone who is disabled.

Since 1989, much progress has been made due to ongoing technological advance, but less human progress has been made. In a 2008 article in Human Resource Management, Mark Lengnick-Hall et al (Mark. L. Lengnick-Hall, Philip M. Gaunt and Mukta Kulkarni, "Overlooked and Underutilized: People with Disabilities are an Untapped Human Resource." Human Resource Management 47:2.) pointed out that the employment rate for people with disabilities is 38.1 percent compared to 78.3 percent for people without disabilities. As the boomers age, the share of the workforce over age 55 will grow to over 20 percent — clearly hiring the disabled will be of increasing strategic importance. But, Lengnick-Hall and his associates point out, concern about reactions and responses of others and fear of the unknown remain key stumbling blocks to hiring people with disabilities. They cite data from several studies that suggest that employees are less likely to joke and engage in non-work-related conversations with people with disabilities. As well, many employers mistakenly believe that reasonable accommodation, the steps that they need to take to permit disabled people to gain access to the workplace (due to the famous requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act), are costly and onerous.

In fact, that is not the case. Lengnick-Hall et al. noted that "while some accommodations may be costly," based on 1990s data nearly three out of four (71%) of accommodations cost $500 or less. Moreover, based on data collected by Du Pont on its own employees, there was no difference in cost from lost time between disabled and nondisabled employees.

“We know that employees with a disability often experience a lower quality relationship with their managers as compared with those who do not have disabilities. Employees with disabilities also often perceive their  departments and their managers’ behaviors to be less than inclusive,” pointed out Catalyst’s Katherine Giscombe, vice president – Diverse Women & Inclusion Research. She suggested that managers at accounting firms who work with disabled people “work to cultivate trusting and candid relationships with these direct reports.”

Both Catalyst’s research on trust and manager as well as two Cornell researchers recommend that managers initially working with a disabled employee take some time for introspection in order to ensure fair treatment for all employees. A manager should ask themselves the following questions: 

  • What are their expectations for the performance of their disabled employee?
  • Do managers ever make assumptions based on stereotypes?
  • How well can managers spot expertise in someone who is disabled?

In the past decade, there have been numerous technological breakthroughs that build on the microchip. In October 2002, HR Magazine reported that tools such as headsets that enable people with limited use of their hands to answer phone calls, braille typewriters, speech-recognition systems, keyboard filters, which include typing aids such as word prediction utilities and add-on spelling checkers have facilitated the hiring of people with disabilities. Another example is the alternative-input device, which enables individuals to operate computers without using their hands. For instance, employees can strike keys with sticks worn on the head, held in the mouth or strapped to the chin. For the deaf, teletype writers are a long standing technology that are being surpassed by video rely service, which involves a remote sign-language interpreter accessed through video-conferencing equipment.
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers consulting support with respect to accommodation methods. Its website has a page that links to accommodation suggestions listed by profession (it includes law but not accounting). It also has a webpage with "accommodation information by disability," which includes links to descriptions of how to accommodate disabilities from Addison's disease to wheelchair use.

"To build trust in the working relationship, CPA managers can model self-disclosing behavior, such as relating anecdotes of how they learned from their own missteps," advised Giscombe. “The manager should provide effective feedback about an employee’s performance, and work to make the employee feel comfortable asking for feedback. The manager should also ask the direct report for their perspectives on the quality of the working relationship, and what suggestions the disabled employee has for improving the relationship,” she added.

It is evident that considerable progress has been made with respect to the technology of accommodation though much less progress has been made with respect to the human dimension. The aging workforce suggests that there are important strategic reasons why we need to learn to better distinguish ourselves.

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Mitchell Langbert, PhD, is an associate professor at Brooklyn College. Widely published on the subject of human resource management, Langbert has consulted and served as an expert witness.