Workers with Disabilities Make Gains on the Job

Starting her job 20 years ago as a clerk in Highmark Inc.’s mailroom, Michelle Labash discovered her dyslexia had become a serious roadblock. Numbers scrambled for her during the fast-paced sorting and delivery — 519 for Imaging Department could have been 915 for Cashiering Department.

Instead of quietly making mistakes or quitting her job, she alerted her co-workers and manager.

“You have to be your own advocate,” said Ms. Labash, who, after three promotions, currently oversees a staff of 21 workers and the flow of mail in and out of six buildings for Highmark’s health plan business. “I think it’s how you approach it. I didn’t say I can’t do this job because I’m dyslexic; I said, help me do this job because I’m dyslexic.”

Ms. Labash’s decision to speak up was only half the equation — she said she was helped by a corporate culture at Highmark receptive to her needs. The Pittsburgh insurer, which has touted its diversity and inclusion initiatives, was one of 42 large companies in July named a “best place to work” based on a benchmark established a few years ago by the American Association of People with Disabilities.

“The larger barrier is more attitudinal,” said Zach Baldwin, director of outreach for the American Association of People with Disabilities, based in Washington, D.C. “A lot of companies will see diversity as women and people of color, and a disability is still looked at differently.”

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act for the first time expanded civil rights to those who have a broad range of disabilities and protected them from discrimination and harassment. In the workplace, that also meant that any employer with 15 or more employees must provide reasonable accommodation to enable people with disabilities to enjoy equal employment opportunities.

Finding more jobs

Labor data show that people with disabilities are making gains in employment. About 5.3 million Americans with disabilities were employed in August, up from 4.8 million in August 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. About two-thirds of them worked in full-time positions spread among diverse occupations and trades, a distribution that is similar to workers who have no disability.

But a significant portion of the disabled population remains out of the workforce. Just one in five people with disabilities are part of the labor force, meaning they are either employed or actively looking for a job. That compares with seven of 10 people who don’t have a disability.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2015 fielded 1,542 complaints alleging disability discrimination in Pennsylvania, the fourth highest number behind other populous states like Texas, Florida and California, according to the agency’s data. Present in about 35 percent of the state’s EEOC total complaints, disability was the most frequently cited form of discrimination — more than allegations of discrimination based on race, sex, age and retaliation. 

Joyce Bender, founder of Robinson-based Bender Consulting Services Inc., said there’s still an unspoken “fear and ignorance” regarding hiring people with disabilities. Ms. Bender, who was diagnosed with epilepsy and is a disability rights advocate, is optimistic about a new rule requiring federal contractors — which make up one in seven U.S. businesses — to hire disabled employees to fill seven percent of their workforce.

The rule, which took effect in March 2014, marks the first time Ms. Bender has seen true affirmative action for disabled workers, she said.

“For the first time in 21 years I’ve been in business, I have all these companies calling me” seeking help to comply, Ms. Bender said. “At first I was in shock, that I lived to see this wonderful day.”

To read Daniel Moore’s complete October 27th Post Gazette article please visit Workers with Disabilities make gains on the job full article

This post brought to you by Daniel Moore:, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

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