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Susan Ward: Disability Employment Awareness Month offered reminder that employers need to put differently-abled to work

Susan Ward

Susan Ward

Ahh, the Sunshine State — where it’s just another day in paradise and theme parks whisk visitors to fantasies where dreams come true.

Problem is the reality isn’t so fancy for the many unemployed Floridians with a disability.

Statistics from the Florida Scorecard Research report show that 63 percent of residents with a disability who want to work aren’t working.

That’s a particularly disheartening lowlight considering the state last month observed Disability Employment Awareness Month.

What gives?

Let’s start with the fact that recent studies show Florida performs nightmarishly when it comes to graduating students with learning disabilities. Slightly more than half of students with a silent disability ever receive a high school diploma.

Not having a high school diploma in our increasingly technological world coupled with having to overcome misconceptions and assumptions about learning disabilities is frustrating and demoralizing.

When businesses discount individuals with disabilities, they miss a capable and diverse group bobbing in the talent pool. These are diverse thinkers, creative problem solvers and detailed taskmasters. People with silent disabilities are an intelligent asset to society and the workforce. They just learn differently. It’s that simple.

So why aren’t employers hiring people with disabilities?

A 2014 study concludes that employers nurse different concerns when considering those with disabilities.

For instance, employers believe appropriate accommodations are expensive and involve pricey investments.

Wrong! (Insert your buzzer noise).

Accommodations can include scheduling breaks, substituting tasks, computer software, written and verbal communication — and patience. Many of these accommodations are cheap or … wait for it … even free.

Yet, stereotypes also come into play. An employer may hold an unrealistic idea about a job requirement. One may assume, for instance, a hearing-impaired applicant isn’t capable of performing a supervisory role because he or should would struggle communicating with co-workers. Such presumptions and stereotypical ideas about skill sets are not only often incorrect, but also corrosive. They can lead to flawed decisions and discrimination.

The irony is that 2014 study found that workers with disabilities are seen as more dependable than those without disabilities are. In fact, Vocational Rehabilitation, a program that helps people with disabilities find jobs, found that 91 percent of workers with disabilities have been reported as “average” or “better than average.”

And studies show employers that have experienced previous positive interactions with the disabled are more likely to fish from that pool.

So what’s the answer?

Helping get our students and young people with disabilities into the field. Get them interacting with businesses to show employers their strengths, abilities, and skills and help dissolve those negative misconceptions.

Those goals undergird what we do at Beacon College, the first higher education institution accredited to award bachelor’s degrees primarily to students who learn differently. Our four-year career model encourages students to think about worthy work from Day 1, equips them with STEM and other degree programs coveted by today’s employers, and collaborates with companies that embrace diversity to provide students’ valuable work experience and networking during their college journey.

It’s why 83 percent of Beacon students find worthy work or pursue postgraduate studies within six months of graduation.

Meanwhile, the Florida Chamber Foundation puts the number of employable Floridians between 16 and 65 with disabilities who want to work but aren’t at more than 700,000.

Florida is the Sunshine State, but unless employers and schools find a way to coach up the disabled to staff the coming wave of open jobs forecast by 2030, their prospects remain overcast.

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Susan Ward is the coordinator of career development and outreach at the Boven Center for Career Development and Outreach at Beacon College in Leesburg, the first college or university accredited to award bachelor’s degrees to students with learning disabilities, ADHD and other learning differences.

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