Ramping up efforts to hire the disabled

Employers say they're focused on emphasizing a diverse work force

November 19. 2012 11:45PM

By Beth Fitzgerald

EXPERTS SAY THE unemployment figure for individuals with disabilities remains stubbornly high, but the state and its employers are taking steps to prevent a wheelchair from becoming an obstacle to the workplace.

Viola Minicozzi, right, meets with Lauren McClintock, an assistant vice president at TD Bank. When she was being considered for her job at TD, ‘the focus was on me as a professional,’ not her muscular dystrophy, Minicozzi says. Both women are members of the bank’s People with Disabilities committee.

Brandon Williams, who is U.S. senior vice president of TD Wealth, a division of TD Bank, in Cherry Hill, and chair of the bank's People with Disabilities committee, said top leadership's commitment to diversity is communicated throughout the bank, with staff trained to foster an inclusive environment, both for employees and customers.

"We have people with disabilities working in every element of our business — in leadership roles, as tellers, in our call centers," he said.

Viola Minicozzi is one of those employees; she's working at TD Bank in a two-year program that grooms future executives. The Duke University business school graduate has muscular dystrophy, and uses a wheelchair; she's working toward a human resources career focused on leadership development.

"There is an extremely high unemployment rate among people with disabilities, and I know too many people who are qualified, but are having difficulty finding employment," Minicozzi said. "But my sense is that the tide is turning."

Williams said TD's drive to boost disability employment shifted into high gear about four years ago, and "we still have a lot of work to do."

"In 2013, we will partner with (outside) organizations to attract more people to our organization who have all different abilities, including people with disabilities."

Experts said attitudes like those at TD — getting employers to make inclusion a priority and partner with organizations dedicated to bringing disabled people into the work force — are crucial to success in this area.

Meg O'Connell, vice president of corporate programs for the National Organization on Disability, said companies are taking pains to ensure their application process doesn't exclude people with disabilities. And instead of referring to a job accommodation — a requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act — "some companies are calling it a 'request for a job aid,' and giving all department managers approval to get anything for under $500 without a doctor's note: let's just buy it for them and get it done."

Minicozzi said she got that impression of TD as she was being considered for the position. "I felt very much integrated with my peers, and the focus was on me as a professional," she said.

Smaller companies are taking note, also. Jane Carter Solution, a 15-person hair care products manufacturer in East Orange, hired Christopher Hubbert, who is hearing impaired, to work on the company's production line. He was hired through Jewish Vocational Service, which sent a sign language interpreter to accompany him on his first few days on the job.

"I teach people sign language and I write notes," Hubbert said through JVS interpreter Lashonda Brown. "This is a very comfortable environment — the people are fun and easy to work with." Ruth Walton Frey, human resources manager at Jane Carter, said the interpreter "played a pivotal role: she got Chris up and running."

Michael Hellerman, co-founder of Jane Carter Solution, said being able to work with an organization like JVS makes hiring people with disabilities possible for his small company, whose products are sold at Target.

"They give us great referrals and they handle the screening process," Hellerman said. "It is a great recruiting outlet — instead of taking out ads and getting 1,000 applications, (JVS) recommends people."

Toni McDaniel, director of diversity recruiting at Newark's Prudential Financial, said the insurance giant launched a summer program in 2008 to bring more disabled workers on board. "We often have individuals who stay much longer than the summer, and we have situations that have turned into full-time employment," she said.

McDaniel said she works with a number of nonprofits like Emerging Leaders, part of the National Business Disability Council, which has "been very strong when it comes to producing candidates for us." She said diversity has long been woven into the business fabric at Prudential, as "from a business perspective, we need to ensure that we have a work force that mirrors the community."

Experts estimate the unemployment and underemployment rate among the disabled population is around 80 percent.

Joseph Amoroso uses a wheelchair to get around in his job as director of the New Jersey Division of Disability Services in the state Department of Human Resources. "We are starting to get a lot of calls from employers" learning the ropes of disability employment, he said. "They say, 'I have a viable candidate with a disability — can you give us some technical assistance or coaching about how to make this work?"

Those calls have increased since Gov. Chris Christie announced in April that New Jersey would become the 14th state to join the national Employment First movement, which recognizes employment, not the government safety net, as the first option for the disabled.

"Everybody can work with the right amount of support," Amoroso said. "I am looking to get someone in the door. People with disabilities are some of the best employees that companies have. We hear that over and over again."

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com


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