How Equity Is Lost When Companies Hire Only Workers With Disabilities

This article is part of a series exploring how the Americans With Disabilities Act has shaped modern life for people with disabilities.

As a summer associate, Haley Moss wanted to be writing motions and attending depositions — not analyzing data. But that’s what she found herself doing at her new law firm job in 2017. Her manager knew she had autism, and Ms. Moss said she wondered if the job duties given to her were based on assumptions that she could synthesize information “like a human supercomputer. ”The Miami-based lawyer felt similar constraints at other jobs.

“I think it’s a really difficult thing to unpack because as a new lawyer, of course I wanted to learn anything I could and always wanted to have important work to do,” said Ms. Moss, 25, who in January 2019 became the first openly autistic lawyer to be sworn into the Florida Bar Association. “But I always felt this pressure to perform above level at times in those types of technical tasks to live up to the belief. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.”

In the three decades since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, employment has remained an elusive goal for many people. Thirty-one percent of people with disabilities, ages 16 to 64, had a job in 2019, compared with 75 percent of those without disabilities, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

But in the last five years, many businesses have adopted hiring practices that prioritize workers with disabilities, often receiving praise for their diverse hiring efforts. Some of these companies start as family restaurants or retail stores that build their brands around hiring only people with disabilities, sometimes operating as charities to save money. In the technology sector, companies such as Microsoft have created programs designed for recruiting workers with autism.

These well-intentioned strategies are an improvement from what are known as sheltered workshops, which disability rights advocates said can become exploitative make-work programs that paid below minimum wage and segregated them from the competitive work force and their communities.

But advocates said this new targeted approach should not be the end goal because it could still sequester people with disabilities and limit their options for employment. Activists also said it set a low bar for companies that expected a pat on the back for hiring workers with disabilities, when that should be the norm for all industries.

“Yes, it’s better than a sheltered workshop, but what it doesn’t give that I think is so important for people with disabilities is the opportunity to work alongside co-workers without disabilities,” said Alison Barkoff, director of advocacy at the Center for Public Representation, a legal advocacy group that supports the disability community. “I think we should be calling upon mainstream employers across the country to really think hard about how we can make a welcoming place for people with disabilities and how we can think about structuring jobs in ways that really meet their strengths.”

DXC, an information technology services company, heavily invests in hiring candidates with autism for cybersecurity, data analytics and similar positions through its training program Dandelion. Michael Fieldhouse, Dandelion’s program director, said the initiative was based on the premise that autistic people tended to possess certain skills — such as pattern recognition and the ability to do repetitive work — that were particularly useful for technology roles.

But many advocates said programs like these could potentially box workers with specific disabilities into certain industries, when they should instead be evaluated holistically. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities, for example, are often pigeonholed into retail jobs rather than encouraged to pursue other careers like acting, politics or modeling. And not all autistic people are passionate about cybersecurity or data analytics — and they may not even be good at it.

“It builds on stereotypes of what autistic people can do and are capable of,” Ms. Moss said. “There’s plenty of amazing, gifted autistic people that rock at tech — I’m just not one of them.”

Some businesses that seek out workers with disabilities have broadened their hiring strategies. When SAP, a global software company, started its Autism at Work program in 2013, the focus was largely hiring autistic workers for technology roles. Now, there are no limits to the jobs that autistic candidates can apply for and include those in human resources, project management, operations and technology, said Sarah Loucks, the program’s global lead.

“Over time, we came to realize our candidates and our employees had many skills that were suited to roles beyond tech,” she said.

However, none of the global or local leads for SAP’s Autism at Work — including Ms. Loucks — are autistic themselves. It is an issue that is mirrored at other companies with similar targeted hiring initiatives, where a do not have disabilities themselves. Inclusion at the top levels is key, activists said, to making such programs equitable.

“Many of these types of settings are structured in a way where they only hire people with disabilities, but they have other staff that are really supervisors of them, and so it doesn’t give them the same opportunities for advancement,” said Ms. Barkoff of the Center for Public Representation.

At Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, a Wilmington, N.C.-based coffee chain, hiring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is part of the business’s brand. Bitty & Beau’s employs 120 workers with disabilities across five locations, along with management-level support staff that “basically simmers in the background,” Amy Wright, the co-founder, said.

Although turnover is low and the leaders say they “believe in promotions,” Ms. Wright cited only one employee with autism who had been promoted to assistant manager since the company began in 2016.

Activists said workers with disabilities should be provided good salaries, benefits and a fair shot at promotions and raises — in other words, the same opportunities that nondisabled people have.

Nationwide, some initiatives are working to make this happen. Forty states have implemented what are known as Employment First policies, which help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities build careers that align their personal strengths and interests with the needs of employers across all sectors. And there’s evidence that Employment First is working.

In Oregon, for example, 577 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were working regular jobs in their communities in 2015 when the state started its Employment First government program, which connects workers with disabilities to potential employers, according to Acacia McGuire Anderson, the program’s coordinator. In 2019, that number surpassed 1,500.

“It started just as a grass-roots campaign saying you’ve got jobs, we have dedicated employees, let’s figure out how to make that match and get it away from the mind-set of ‘we’re going to hire somebody as charity.’ That’s not the case at all,” said Ms. Anderson, referring to a long-held perception that hiring disabled workers is considered a kind gesture or a favor rather than their right under the A.D.A. “When you hire an employee with an intellectual or developmental disability, you’re getting a solid employee.”

At a time when people with disabilities are pressing to be more fully integrated into society, activists said the wrong message was sent when companies like Bitty & Beau’s were lauded.

In December 2017, Ms. Wright was named CNN’s Hero of the Year for opening Bitty & Beau’s. The award decision received online backlash from disability advocates, who said hiring underrepresented workers should not be viewed as heroic. They also said disabled workers should not be treated as inspirations for merely working a 9-to-5 job like nondisabled people do every day.

“When you hire someone, unless they have a special story or something, you aren’t going to put them in a spotlight and parade them like a mascot,” said Courtney Pugh, 23, of Dallas, who has Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy and lives near Howdy Homemade, an ice-cream parlor that mainly employs people with disabilities. “You’re going to hire them, you’re going to treat them like the adult they are.”

Ms. Wright said the award was more about recognizing the workers rather than herself, though she acknowledged that ideally, businesses like hers would not have to exist if people with disabilities were fully integrated into every workplace.

“For right now, this seems to be a step in the right direction, and it’s making people rethink what the workplace looks like and what people with disabilities are capable of doing,” she said

With devastating job losses because of the pandemic, advocates said this was the time for people with disabilities to be given the chance to pivot away from industries they had been traditionally boxed into and transfer their skills to other sectors.

Alexandra McConaughey, a multiply disabled law graduate, said the job market was so abysmal that it was understandable why disabled workers would choose to work at a company like SAP or Bitty & Beau’s.

“I’m someone who’s experienced a lot of hiring discrimination, so I see the appeal of knowing that the people on the other side are actually genuinely looking for disabled talent,” said Ms. McConaughey, who was recently hired to work as an associate at a nonprofit law firm. “Honestly, if I hadn’t gotten this job, I’d be looking for those types of initiatives right now, because getting a job as a person with a disability is so hard.”

But workers with disabilities should not have to maintain low expectations, she said, and good intentions were not enough when disability discrimination had already been illegal for 30 years because of the A.D.A.

“I don’t at all judge people with disabilities for taking these jobs or expressing gratitude for these jobs when there’s so little out there,” Ms. McConaughey said. “But we deserve more than this.”

Wendy Lu (@wendyluwrites) is a news editor and reporter at HuffPost covering the intersection of disability, politics and culture. She speaks about disability representation in the media at universities, conferences and organizations around the world. She is based in New York City.

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