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Employing Individuals with Disabilities May Solve Your Talent Crisis Employment rates won't change until companies begin to shift attitudes and awareness about people with disabilities.

By Nancy Geenen Edited by Heather Wilkerson

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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There are more than 56 million people with disabilities in the U.S., which equates to one in five Americans identifying as having some form of disability. This means it is highly likely you already employ individuals with disabilities, and there is a highly motivated and talented resource waiting for your call.

Too often, employers are given outdated social service reasons for building a strategy that is inclusive of disability. Yet, there is a persuasive business case for an inclusive and accessible workplace. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers who have embraced disability as a component of their talent strategy report a:

  • 90 percent increase in retention of valued employees
  • 72 percent increase in employee productivity
  • 45 percent increase in workplace safety

Related: The Incredible Reason This Company Only Hires Adults With Autism

In addition, 38 percent report saved workers' compensation or other insurance costs, and 28 percent report increased profitability. Ninety percent of consumers surveyed "specifically agreed that they would prefer to give their business to companies that hire individuals with disabilities."

Given these statistics, what are the challenges to employing more individuals with disabilities?

The interview process.

A primary barrier is the attitude and inexperience of the hiring manager. Most of us would state unequivocally that we do not discriminate against individuals with disabilities. And yet, studies show that bias -- implicit or unconscious -- paired with discomfort of the unknown has a negative effect on the interview process.

The recruiter screens resumes, conducts phone interviews, and selects the candidates who make the cut. The individual with a disability arrives for the interview and the hiring manager experiences a momentary brain freeze that hijacks the process. The fear of saying the wrong thing causes the interviewer to lose track of the questions and instead become absorbed with an internal monologue that evaluates whether the candidate can do the job with the disability. Very few of the questions specifically scripted get asked. Even fewer responses get recorded. Most likely, the candidate has already conquered many of the challenges, real or imagined, that cause concern. The interview goes sideways; the paperwork is sketchy; and the candidate with a disability does not get a call back.

Related: Is An Inclusive Workforce Still a Distant Dream?

How do interviewers avoid the brain freeze trap? Stick to the script. Ask the questions that assess whether the person shares the core values of the organization, has the skills needed and is a good fit for the role. Being uncomfortable in a new situation is normal. Stay focused on the interview process and assess the whole person. This is a talented, eager candidate who is ready to prove her value to the company. There's a person to get to know and the potential for an amazing colleague who will help an organization grow.

The workplace.

The ADA requires that employers provide effective, reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Experienced employers understand many people arrive to the job with accommodations already in place. Employers and employees who work together as a team to understand the accommodation needs will find an effective and reasonable resolution. Use design thinking to understand the disability-related limitation causing the productivity issue. Evaluate several options to find the best solution. Think about accessibility tools and strategies that increase productivity in the workplace, rather than those that accommodate the disability. Less than 40 percent of individuals with disabilities require accommodations in the workplace. And often, the accommodation is an accessibility tool that costs less than $500 and increases productivity or safety for others. (Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy)

The rapid advancements in artificial intelligence are changing the future of work and directly impacting accessible technologies for employees with disabilities. Earlier this year, Microsoft announced the AI for Accessibility Initiative that will focus on the development of accessible and intelligent AI solutions for individuals with disabilities. Already, this is having a cost-efficient impact on accommodations: Microsoft Translator creates real-time captions for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Start with three simple steps:

  1. Talk with your HR manager to determine whether candidates are asked if any accommodations are needed during the interview process, and train for this in the interview process.
  2. Look at your website and recruiting materials to see if individuals with visible disabilities are represented.
  3. Create external partnerships with organizations like Galt Foundation, which specializes in disability employment and has access to talent and resources for your company.

The brain freeze phenomena is simply due to outdated ideas of what it means to live and work with a disability. Changing our attitudes about individuals with disabilities is the one thing over which every person has control. Employment rates won't change until companies begin to shift attitudes and awareness about the abilities, value and potential within the talent pool of disability. If the HR training is missing the humanity, your company is missing out on talent.

Related: This Leader Is Making It Easier for Members of the Deaf Community to Start Their Own Businesses

There is a new generation of 20-somethings whose mainstream education has changed the way they view themselves and their abilities. Many of these young professionals are well-educated college graduates who expect to enter an accessible and diverse workplace that is open to their talent. Since 2001, about 52,000 service men and women have been wounded in action. Many more have returned to civilian life with invisible disabilities. By the year 2020, the CDC estimates that nearly half of the U.S. population will be living with chronic medical issues.

As employers, we need a talented diverse work force to compete in the global marketplace. Understand the facts and the solutions that individuals with disabilities can provide for your gaps in recruitment. Then lead with your heart to create a fair and equitable workplace.

Nancy Geenen

CEO of Flexability

Nancy Geenan is CEO of Flexability, a social impact firm that builds more diverse, dynamic and productive working environments by partnering with like-minded companies, communities and job-seekers. She was previously CEO of Galt Foundation. She holds degrees from Santa Clara University and Stanford.

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