Myths And Facts About Disability Employment: Q&A With A Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Diane Winiarski, the director of vocational rehabilitation at Allsup Employment Services, provides insight on the current state of disability employment in the country. In doing so, she debunks various myths that employers have about workers with disabilities, provides best practices on hiring and accommodating disabled workers and explains the work Allsup is doing to promote financial stability among people with disabilities.

Allsup and its subsidiaries provide nationwide Social Security disability, veterans disability appeal, return to work, exchange plan and Medicare services for individuals, their employers and insurance carriers. Allsup professionals deliver specialized services supporting people with disabilities and seniors so they may lead lives that are as financially secure and as healthy as possible. Founded in 1984, the company is based in Belleville, Illinois. 

Sarah Kim: What are the biggest misconceptions employers have about hiring people with disabilities?

Diane Winiarski: Many employers overlook hiring people with disabilities because they incorrectly expect to have added insurance costs, less productivity, more days off, or other additional costs. The reality is that hiring people with disabilities is financially and culturally beneficial for businesses. A 2018 study by Accenture found that companies who hired people with disabilities outperformed their peers and saw a wide variety of improvements. These businesses saw 72% more productivity, 45% better workplace safety, 30% higher profit margins and 200% higher net income. Today In: Leadership

Not only are people with disabilities qualified for a variety of positions, but they are also eager and ready to work. We work with thousands of people every year, and when asked, 52% of them say that they want to work again if and when their medical condition improves. 

Diane Winiarski is the director of vocational rehabilitation at Allsup Employment Services.ALLSUP EMPLOYMENT SERVICES


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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only around one-third of the working-age people with disabilities are currently employed. How can we improve this number? What do you see as the biggest challenge for this population on getting hired?

It’s true – the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is nearly double (6.1%) to the national unemployment rate (3.2%). The myths about hiring individuals with disabilities are a major factor in keeping this group from being hired. The other issue is a lack of awareness about the resources people can use to find employment. 

For the millions of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) beneficiaries, there is a free program provided by the SSA called Ticket to Work. Only 30% of these individuals even know it exists. Employment Networks (EN) are part of the program and provide free job placement services, career counseling, and more. ENs streamline the employment process, complete the necessary paperwork, and connect qualified workers with the right businesses that need their talent. There are about 600 ENs across the U.S., providing support to individuals. Since starting, Allsup Employment Services has helped thousands of former workers find employment.  

Do you think the equal opportunity, anti-discrimination, and reasonable accommodations laws and regulations are enough for protecting and promoting employees with disabilities? What could the government do better with the services they provide?

We’ve come a long way in the disability rights movements, improving this marginalized group’s civil rights and enacting laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, there is still more that can be done.  

We need to bring more awareness to employers about the types of reasonable accommodations that employees with disabilities actually need to get a job done and help business progress. Reasonable, in this case, means affordable. It’s any change that doesn’t cause undue harm to a business. Most of these accommodations are free or under $500. These reasonable accommodations can be as simple as modified schedules, flexible hours, or remote positions. Employers are apprehensive about hiring a person with disabilities because they aren’t fully educated about how easy it is to provide these accommodations. 

What is the range of disabilities the people you work with have? What is the range of educational levels that they have?

All of the individuals we work with are SSDI beneficiaries who, in order to qualify for the program, must have worked at least 5 of the last 10 years, paid Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) taxes, be under 65 years old, and have a disability that prevents them from working for at least one year. 

Allsup also helps individuals apply for SSDI benefits as, unfortunately, two-thirds of individuals that apply for SSDI on their own are denied. They have a range of physical and mental disabilities, the most common of which include back and musculoskeletal problems, all forms of cancer, cardiovascular and circulatory diseases and mental illness. As far as their educational levels, these individuals come from across the U.S. workforce, so their education ranges from high school to master’s degrees, and they have, on average, 22 years of work experience. 

Tell me a story of one client you’ve worked with through the program. What did you personally get out of it?

Last year, I worked with Tim, 26, who was an Assistant Store Manager. He experienced a severe spinal cord injury resulting in quadriplegia. Once Tim was released from the rehabilitation facility and transitioned home, I worked with Tim and his employer to make modifications to the building and his work station. I also worked with Tim and his State Department of Vocational Services to obtain a wheelchair-accessible van for transportation. 

 Once all the modifications were completed, I developed a plan for a gradual return to work that allowed Tim to build his strength and endurance. After five weeks, Tim successfully returned to work on a full-time basis. Tim was extremely motivated to return to work, which resulted in a future promotion to Manager with his employer. I was personally impressed with how motivated Tim was to return to work and how accommodating his employer was. 

What is your opinion on companies that give employees sub-minimum wages and then try to justify it by saying they’re providing vocational training?

Individuals with disabilities must receive a fair wage for their work, and that is comparative to anyone else doing the same job. 

What is the most significant accomplishment that you’ve overseen at Allsup? What do you think the program can be doing better?

I’m excited to have been a part of our efforts to improve our vocational and career pathways preparation for our customers. It’s vital to help people who are truly motivated to make their way through the overwhelming process of identifying and securing job opportunities. 

More could be done to increase awareness of the Ticket to Work program and the value of working with an Employment Network such as Allsup Employment Services to receive free help in understanding your benefits, options, and next steps to return to work after medical recovery from a disability.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Yes. More than 156 million workers are insured for SSDI benefits, so it’s important that current workers realize they can access these important benefits if they experience a disability. In addition, a health condition doesn’t have to be permanent in order to access the SSDI and return to work assistance – it can last two or three years. It’s vital that more workers realize this support is here, and they can access these benefits and recover their careers, in the event of an unforeseen health issue.

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