Two guys walk into a job interview with equal qualifications. Except that one of them uses a cane.

So who gets the job? Your human side might say it doesn’t matter, but Hannah Rudstam of the Employment and Disability Institute, or EDI, at Cornell University has lots of research to show that it does. All else being equal, a person with a disability — particularly an obvious one — will almost always lose out to a person who has none.

In addition to what such a happenstance might do to a job candidate, Rudstam worries what it does to employers. By turning away candidates with disabilities, a type of discrimination that the Supreme Court has made difficult to fight, employers are missing a well of untapped talent, she says.

Rudstam will present “Strategies for Employing People with Disabilities” on Thursday, September 17, at 8:30 a.m. at Mercer County Community College. The free event, part education and part networking for employers and disability service providers, is sponsored by the Human Resources Management Association. Call 609-570-3311, or visit

An estimated 54 million Americans have a disability — a full fifth of the population — and yet while more than 80 percent of work-eligible people without disabilities are employed, less than 40 percent of the work-eligible disabled have jobs, according to, a website overseen by EDI. Those remaining 34 million people, Rudstam says, represent a pool of talent she is convinced will become vital to business health over the next decade.

Boom to bust. As it is in healthcare, the onset of the Baby Boom generation’s retirement has become a concern for forward-looking economists. While it might seem counterintuitive right now to worry about an abundance of available jobs, Rudstam says that as Boomers cross into their 70s and 80s over the next 10 to 15 years their absence in the workforce could create a dangerous shortage of workers, as generations X and Y simply do not have the numbers to replace them.

Paying attention to disabilities in the workplace can offer two major solutions, Rudstam says. First, hiring employees with disabilities will not only pre-empt a mass exodus, it also will provide employers with millions of qualified, loyal workers. Second, by addressing the needs of the disabled now, employers set in place policies and environments that could retain older workers past their expected departure point, thereby easing more gently into the void.

As we age, Rudstam says, we become more susceptible to disabilities — hearing loss, a decrease in mobility, fading vision. Employers who take steps to address these problems, which are rife across the disabled population, address a current concern and a future one.

Fears, myths, and misinformation. In the 19 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, the workplace’s broadest concession seems to have been to stop using the word “handicapped” and start using the word “disabled.” We have changed the word, but not the attitude toward the people to whom it is applied, and Rudstam says unsubstantiated worries that hiring someone with special needs often leads employers to dismiss candidates with startling efficiency.

“We tend to play ‘blame the victim,’ particularly with the psychiatrically disabled,” Rudstam says. Employers leap to the conclusion that a disabled employee would require expensive reconfiguration of the office, take more time off, take more of the boss’ time, and require more breaks, she says. Worse, voluminous research shows that employers automatically expect less of the disabled, and, therefore, believe they will not be able to perform.

Rudstam says the opposite is true. A similar mountain of research has yet to find evidence that disabled workers are more prone to absenteeism, or that they require more of anyone’s time. Performance levels are almost identical to those of non-disabled workers, and the money to accommodate disabled workers is usually between $500 and $1,000, she says.

Major renovations such as ramps and elevators, which some employers fear they’ll have to make, are not up to the employer unless he is also the landlord — that’s a buildings and grounds issue. Rather, Rudstam says, most adjustments are simple. A small piece of equipment. A taller desk. An additional lamp.

Some are free — moving some filing cabinets. Setting a desk on some bricks.

Conversely, she says, a longstanding body of economic research shows that the cost of losing an employee often adds up to 100 percent of that employee’s salary, disabled or not.

Disclosure. Myth and mistrust, says Rudstam, often build from a familiar starting point — absence of answers. On the one hand, employers often simply do not look into a situation deeply enough to know what would be required to meet any employee’s needs. On the other hand, there is the very human reaction to finding out a secret.

The ADA, which applies to companies with 15 or more employees, allows every American the right to not mention a disability to any prospective employer. But while that right is designed to protect privacy, Rudstam says employers all too often draw the conclusion that someone who does not disclose a disability is being sneaky. Companies find out later, and not always on Day One, that an employee has the disability. Employers feel duped, trust is strained, and the cycle continues.

Excuses, excuses. So just how do companies get away with shunning disabled workers when a federal law expressly says they can’t? Like many avenues of the law in America, the Americans with Disabilities Act is a good idea open to broad interpretation.

First, the ADA has shown to be vaporous in its definitions of what a disability is. The Supreme Court has largely sided with businesses when clashes have risen, and has stated repeatedly that the onus of proving a disability is on the individual. The court has given employers just enough power in deciding whether a person’s disability truly qualifies as a disability to make it hard for some workers to claim ADA benefits. A wrist ache is not necessarily carpal tunnel syndrome, and because that is so, sufferers of wrist pain often get worse en route to qualifying as disabled.

Second, disabled or not, a person has to be able to do the job. Rudstam says that employers have been given large reign over this fact, which she admits is necessary. A tech company forced to hire a person in a wheelchair simply because of the wheelchair would soon find itself at a major disadvantage if its new hire had no clue what a computer was. Employers, Rudstam says, often rely on the qualified-employee clause, but not all decisions are made innocently. Many employers use qualification as an excuse to turn away someone who would be just as good as the one who got the job.

Diversity and perseverance, by nature. What employers are missing, says Rudstam, is that disabled workers repeatedly have shown that they are overwhelmingly loyal to their employers. One of the reasons, she says, is because the difficulty in getting hired makes disabled workers appreciate a company that gives them a break, but another reason, she says, is due to something more fundamental.

By the sheer fact that a person has a disability, Rudstam says, he knows how to overcome challenges. Starting with a disadvantage makes people resilient. Standard work challenges are often not seen as so bad, and problem-solving comes second nature.

Well, if she can do it … Employers who disregard the disabled also fail to consider the positive aspects these workers bring to the company internally. In addition to tapping into what Rudstam calls “the largest untapped diversity population in America,” companies often benefit simply from the example that a hard-working employee with a disability offers.

One of Rudstam’s favorite examples is a woman who became disabled during her tenure at a cable TV company. The woman never called out sick and was almost always the first one in every day. Soon enough the other employees on her team began showing up earlier and became the location’s top team. “They looked at her and said, ‘If she can do it, so can I,’” Rudstam says.

Capitalizing on the guilt of non-disabled workers has its advantages, but Rudstam also points out that just as solving physical and spatial issues for disabled workers often helps the entire workplace by default, rethinking tasks so that disabled workers can operate efficiently often leads to innovations in the work process.

At a hospital in Cincinnati, Rudstam says, a staff of mentally disabled workers was brought in to do re-stocking work. Many could not read or decipher numbers, so the hospital began using graphics and picture cues that the workers understood. Mistakes nearly disappeared and efficiency shot out of the park, Rudstam says. That same system, implemented for all staff, cut wasted time and boosted efficiency exponentially.

Customer comfort. Some employers are shy about putting a disabled employee in view of the public, their fear being that a disabled employee might make restaurant patrons or clothes shoppers uncomfortable, Rudstam says.

The reality, she says, is the exact opposite. Numerous studies show that customers in general are not bothered by disabled employees, and most feel more warmly about companies that openly employ the disabled. Disabled customers in particular, she says, see such businesses as positive role models.

Similarly, companies that cater to the needs of the disabled specifically comprise a multi-million-dollar industry, and relationships between standard businesses and niche firms are growing, Rudstam says. The niche itself, she adds, is a great field for entrepreneurship, whether the entrepreneur has a disability or not.

Born in Wisconsin, Rudstam earned her bachelor’s in psychology and anthropology, her master’s in educational policy, and her Ph.D. in adult learning from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She began her career after she married a Swede and worked as a program planner and evaluator at the Royal Adult Learning Academy in Stockholm. She returned to UW as a senior research scientist researching a statewide health risk prevention program.

When her husband got a job at Cornell, Rudstam worked as an organizational development and HR consultant in Syracuse, where she says, “I learned a lot about HR and about disabilities.” Not willing to relocate to Connecticut with her company, she got a job with EDI five years ago. She prefers it because of the more immediate nature of the work, though she says the traveling can be a bit much. “It’s a good thing my kids are grown,” she says.

Rudstam says EDI’s efforts, which entail a lot of visits to colleges and workplaces, have proven effective. Companies hearing all these facts tend to tell her that they will implement more inclusive workplace practices, regardless of whether they employ anyone disabled. The bottom line, she says, is that trust and good will are the equity in which companies must trade if they are to have a competitive advantage in the coming decades.

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