Almost 70 years ago, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged employers to offer "equality of opportunity" for disabled and older workers and recognize that "ability ... should be the sole job test."
Sadly, we haven't come very far.
The Americans with Disabilities Act--important legislation meant to improve quality of life and provide equality of work life--was passed in 1990. Yet only 17.5% of people with a disability were employed in 2015, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. That compares to a 65% employment rate for people without documented disabilities. Even considering educational levels, unemployment rates are much higher for people with disabilities.
Large organizations like IBM and Proctor & Gamble have a better track record than most employers. They are more likely to recruit people with disabilities and accommodate their needs. But even businesses committed to inclusive hiring practices employ people with disabilities at a fraction of their percentage in the population.
Small and midsize manufacturers and industrial companies in particular have a long way to go --with much to gain.
MDI in Minnesota manufactures plastic packaging solutions with a workforce that is 50% people with disabilities. You may be familiar with the white, opaque plastic totes and trays used by the U.S. Postal Service. MDI has produced more than 90 million.
We train our employees to grow within MDI or seek jobs beyond our organization; they have a choice.
We sometimes encounter worry or reluctance to hire people with disabilities. But more often, there is praise from a customer whose fears and stereotypes were shattered by hiring one of our employees. Ninety-four percent of customers surveyed said our employees with disabilities met or exceeded their performance and quality standards.
At MDI, people with and without disabilities work side by side, producing the best possible products for our business-to-business customers. People with disabilities successfully operate plastic extruders, run gantry robots, and work on a variety of automated process equipment, such as assembly systems and boxing machines.
We are a nonprofit that competes with private, for-profit companies, and we are certified to meet ISO 9001 standards. As of October 2016, 260 of our 521 employees were people with disabilities fulfilling production jobs. Few required workplace accommodations.
Nga Reh, a refugee from Burma, joined MDI in 2012 as a welder. He wears a leg prosthesis and deals with chronic pain as a result of stepping on a landmine at the age of 21. His job with MDI was his first in the U.S. Today, he enjoys the variety of assembly and manufacturing work on the production floor.
Nga and others like him are gaining financial independence, easing the burden on our state and federal agencies, and giving back to their communities. They are also contributing to their employer's bottom line.
Our employees and those we place with other employers know what's expected of them: to be on time, to work well with others, and to meet their employer's quality and production goals.
If a new hire with disabilities does need specialized training, skills development or added support, services are readily available - and often at no cost to employers. Employers can access services through a variety of state, federal or nonprofit entities, including these:
- The Employer Assistance and Resource Network
- State vocational rehabilitation agencies
- The U.S. Workforce Recruitment Program
- The Office of Disability Employment Policy
- The Job Accommodation Network
- The Society for Human Resource Management
At MDI, employees with disabilities receive equal pay and benefits--minimum wage or higher. They meet the same standards as the employees without disabilities who work alongside them. This integrated workforce helps mirror the community around us--people with and without disabilities working together and learning from each other.
Employers can meet their diversity and social responsibility goals by practicing the ADA fair employment standards and increase productivity with a fully staffed workplace. For-profit companies can also earn federal tax credits and incentives to help cover any potential accommodation costs, such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit.
At MDI, inclusive hiring has had a powerfully positive impact on our culture. Not only do our employees with disabilities appreciate their jobs, but they bring incredible energy and a positive spirit to work every day: 95% of employees surveyed say they like working at MDI. Our low turnover rates and high product-quality metrics support these numbers.
It's time to acknowledge people with disabilities are extremely able workers. MDI is a better organization because of them.