as shared by our colleagues at Jewish Vocational Service, (JVS) Chicago ...
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, a time when the North American Jewish community raises awareness and fosters inclusion of people with disabilities and their families. Its message, “From Awareness to Inclusion,” affirms to people of all faiths that people with disabilities need to be included in society rather than segregated: segregation is discrimination.
The workplace is a key area in which people with disabilities can and should be included. Some businesses worry that inclusion will be expensive and slow productivity, but careful studies of the workplace have shown that the vast majority of these fears are groundless. In fact, a major study by the Walgreens Company showed that logistics center workers with disabilities were more productive, stayed on the job longer and took 40 percent fewer sick days than other workers. Creating an inclusive environment for workers with disabilities can lead to bigger profits and better morale.
Taking the first steps
“Employers shouldn’t think of creating an inclusive environment as ‘complying with ADA regulations,’” said Bob Parkinson, Manager of Programs Administration at JVS Chicago, “but rather look at it as normalizing the workplace for people with disabilities. And by ‘workplace,’ I also mean the softball league and the company picnic. Work areas and lunchrooms for people with disabilities should be common, not apart from other employees.”
Beth Wyman, Senior Manager of Services for People with Disabilities for JVS Chicago’s allied agency, Jewish Child & Family Services, said, “Creating an inclusive work environment requries a cultural shift. The best approach often is, ‘Let’s figure it out together.’”
Wyman said a good first step is “to call the JVS Chicago Access number (855-INFO-JVS) and explain to the clinician what your needs are. Hiring a person with disabilities is similar to hiring anyone; it has to be a good fit.”
Helene Levine, Manager of Work Place Services at JVS Chicago, stressed that creating an inclusive environment “should be practical for everyone involved, and should begin with helping the new hire to learn about your company’s work environment. Some people with disabilities haven’t worked before, and they need help with learning how to use the time clock, when it’s time to go to lunch, and where the restrooms are located. They need to find out how to become a team player in your company’s culture.”
Keys to Success
Levine, who has been helping people with disabilities find work for more than 30 years, also recommended a mentoring program for new employees with disabilities – “mentors, not job coaches. JVS Chicago does the job coaching, but a mentor from inside the company can be invaluable. Mentorship, coaching and managers reinforcing the positives rather than criticizing the negatives seems to be a formula for success.”
Parkinson, Wyman and Levine were less concerned with educating the workforce without disabilities, and Parkinson cautioned that training about how to work with people who have disabilities “should never single out anybody.” He said some basic education about disability etiquette is helpful, and Wyman said for some individuals the primary support needed can be as simple as workers speaking more slowly or making sure they’re making eye contact when speaking to a person with a disability.
Disability etiquette is not any more complicated than any other set of manners. It’s as simple as sitting down to speak with people in wheelchairs or offering your arm to blind people rather than taking theirs. Good reference material is available in print and online. Parkinson said that employers have to believe that hiring people with disabilities is in their best interest, and they have to pass that belief down the chain of command throughout the company. Scholars at the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University boiled down a definition of a successful inclusive workplace to three characteristics:
- Representation: The presence of people with disabilities across a range of employee roles, and leadership positions
- Receptivity: Respect for differences in working styles, and flexibility in tailoring positions to the strengths and abilities of employees
- Fairness: Equitable access to all resources, opportunities, networks, and decision-making processes
Levine said that JVS Chicago offers training on-site about how to work with someone who is deaf, blind or has another disability. The training sessions are at lunchtime.
“We coach individual employers who have hired JVS Chicago candidates,” said Parkinson, “just as we help every supported environment hire. The idea is to transfer support gradually from the service provider to the employer.”
When everyone’s on board, the results are usually positive, said Levine.
“These people are highly motivated,” she said. “They want to be in an inclusive environment, and they have the skills to be part of your company.”
For more information on hiring someone with a disability, visit www.jvschicago.org or call 855-INFO-JVS.
To participate in Jewish Disability Awareness Month, you can attend a seminar, “Policy, Advocacy and You,” on Feb. 27 in Wilmette, IL.