Vista Mohanty, a senior applications developers, works at his desk at Highmark, Downtown.
Michelle Labash, manager of administrative services for the western region for Highmark Inc., talks with Justin Hucko, a general clerk with Gateway Health Plan, in the mail center at Highmark's Fifth Avenue Place building, Downtown. Ms. Labash, who was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 6, joined Highmark in 1996.
By Daniel Moore / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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.
“I can’t say it’s ever been a difficult conversation,” Ms. Labash said. “And if you don’t have a solution for it, there’s a lot of creative people who are around you and maybe they have an idea.”
While technology and better diversity initiatives have helped workers with disabilities make gains in employment, they still struggle to find work — far more often the overall population.
“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.
Still, some companies balk at the “reasonable accommodation” language, said Deborah Hendricks, principal investigator with the Job Accommodation Network based at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
The network — a federally funded clearinghouse of information and technical assistance for companies and employees on rights and responsibilities — was the first consulting service of its kind when it was established in 1983. Last month, it was awarded $2.5 million from the U.S. Department of Labor for operational costs for the next five years.
With a staff of 30 people, the center handles roughly 6,000 calls each year and its website attracts millions of hits. Because both disabilities and workplaces can vary, accommodation depends largely on the situation — ranging from a ramp for wheelchair users to providing a reader or interpreter for someone who is blind or hearing impaired.
The network’s consultants walk through recommended practices with callers and provide customized information.
“Initially, most of (the callers) don’t have clear idea of what they’re asking for,” Ms. Hendricks said.
The good news is, technology like screen-reading software, email and online chat and the ability to perform mobile work from any location has made the workplace generally more accessible at a minimal cost. A videophone — which pairs a standard telephone with a video screen — is widely used by the hearing impaired to communicate with or to understand others through on-demand sign language services.
In an informational packet released this month, Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania estimates that the cost of a workplace modification is typically under $500.
“For every new technology that’s coming in, there are people who are looking to make them more and more accessible,” Ms. Hendricks said. “That’s where we come in. We’re back here keeping track of all that’s coming on and tell you how to use it.”
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.”
Charting the success stories
Absent formal complaints or lawsuits, it’s difficult to chart poor performance among companies or industries in hiring workers with disabilities.
But there are a growing number of methods to highlight companies that do well on this issue. In 2013, the Disability Equality Index was rolled out to give the country’s largest publicly-traded companies four metrics to score themselves: employment practices; culture & leadership; community engagement; and enterprise-wide access.
Jointly developed by the U.S. Business Leadership Network and the American Association of People with Disabilities, it was modeled after the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which focuses on LGBT inclusion. Eligible to participate are companies in the Fortune 1000 and the American Lawyer magazine’s 200 largest revenue-grossing firms.
“There weren’t any transparent, large scale (or) national tools out there to objectively measure business disability inclusion policies and practices and to recognize companies for the good work they are doing while also providing ideas for improvement and driving change across business,” said Jani Willis, the programs/operations director for the Disability Equality Index.
Of the 80 companies that participated in July, 42 of them, including Highmark Health, received a perfect score. In its third year, the index will be offered to more companies.
Still, employers across the board need to open their doors to people with disabilities, said Mr. Baldwin of the American Association of People with Disabilities. That can be done through connecting with diverse labor suppliers and making job openings explicit that the position is open to everyone, he said.
“Folks have a lot of misconceptions of employees with disabilities … and that’s only going to change when we have more interactions,” Mr. Baldwin said.
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