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Disability In The Workplace

March 15, 2016

A closer look at barriers to employment

Though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all places of employment to provide equal access and reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities, there are still many barriers to employment that may stand between a deserving individual with a disability and their full career potential.

Among them, two things stand out most: fear of discrimination in the hiring process, particularly in the application process, and fear of exceeding a threshold of income that could result in the loss of federal entitlement.

Joseph Stramondo, PhD, assistant teaching processor in the Health Administration Department, weighed in on the matter, offering perspective from the lens of his own disability as well as that of his professional specialization and research focus in the area. “As far as the social policy level, one of the key problems getting in the way of people that could work who aren’t working is that if they exceed a certain income, they will lose that federal entitlement. For a disabled person who may rely on some of those entitlements to get out of bed in the morning, it’s a serious problem.”

Stramondo referenced individuals losing Medicaid and the support services that come along with it that allow a disabled person to be able to live in their own home versus being institutionalized. He said, “For example, they may have a personal attendant who comes to their home to assist with certain things they rely on to get through their daily tasks of living so that they can work.” So regardless of how well educated an individual might be, the possibility of losing these services could threaten the quality of their daily life, let alone their ability to work.

Despite federal protections introduced with the ADA, disclosure, according to Stramondo, is still “a big deal for anyone with a disability.” He added, “There’s a tension between needing reasonable accommodations, but understanding also that there is a great deal of discrimination in the job application process. It’s a very fine line to tread.”

In treading that line, Susan Harmon, MPA, assistant director of Drexel University’s Office of Disability Resources, said that the rule of thumb is to disclose any medications you may be taking during the application process if there is the potential for a mandatory drug test. Under normal hiring practices, whether a person discloses or not is an individual matter and with some jobs, it wouldn’t be in the person’s best interest to disclose. 

In her role at the University, Harmon advises students and tackles many questions related to employment with a disability as they prepare for their Co-op cycles.

“It can cause angst for people to check off that box stating that they have X, Y or Z disability, especially those disabilities that are not apparent.   For example, an individual with a psychological or medical disability may not want to check off that box.

Both Stramondo and Harmon agree that primary question regarding disclosure is when to do it to avoid the overt discrimination that still does go on. “At some point you of course should disclose, especially if you are in need of an accommodation to be successful at your job,” said Stramondo.

From the employer perspective, the issue is a lack of understanding. Harmon said, “If a person can perform the actual job duties with reasonable accommodations, it shouldn’t be a problem. But many employers are just not well versed in these opportunities.”

Stramondo seconded that notion. “Employers need better education as far as what disabilities mean to someone’s ability to work. There’s still quite a bit of misunderstanding out there as far as reasonable accommodations.” Once such misconception is that these accommodations are going to be very costly. “In reality, many accommodations are low tech, inexpensive and not a huge deal,” said Stramondo. “It’s a fear of what they don’t know.”

If discrimination does occur during the hiring process, the ADA – a federal protection – can offer back up, and should, in theory, act as a safety net. The burden, however, is in proving that the reason you weren’t hired was on account of your disability. “The trouble is that with any kind of discrimination in hiring it’s really really hard to prove. So that’s why the hesitancy to disclose is still so prevalent,” said Stramondo.

The issues are prevalent, and though progress has been made and not all employers are guilty of discriminating, the worry is undoubtedly present in the process of seeking employment for persons with disabilities.

Stramondo acknowledged that his experience at Drexel during the hiring process was a positive one.  “They’ve done a really good job in making sure I had everything I needed as far as reasonable accommodations on campus, like an adapter chord so I can use my own iPad to lecture, and scheduling my classes in accessible rooms, for example. They’ve done a great job in communicating with me about what it is I need pretty much from the very get-go.”

That education and support is partially the result of the work of Harmon and her colleagues in the Office of Disability Resources. They provide education to Drexel faculty, graduate assistants and others to mitigate that very “fear of the unknown”. In addition to counseling in preparation for Co-op and employment, they also provide students and employees with accommodations.

For more information about resources available on campus, visit the Office of Disability Resources website.