According to a recently released study by the Information Technology Association of America, the number of unfilled IT positions at U.S. companies is projected to be approximately 844,000 over the next 12 months. In a single-minded quest for uncovering the “best and brightest,” the IT industry has managed to overlook a valuable, untapped human resource which can help fill this need for qualified and highly skilled employees: people with disabilities.

This largest single minority in the United States constitutes a pool of about 27 million disabled people of working age—a mere 29 percent of whom are currently employed. In this article, I’ll explain how IT services and consulting firms can make the most of this talent pool.

The value of hiring the disabled
According to the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, employees with disabilities in the workplace are safer, more reliable, more dependable, more punctual, and more loyal employees than their nondisabled counterparts.

Yet many employers continue to have misconceptions about recruiting and hiring disabled people, including perceived high accommodation costs, confusion over employment laws, and ignorance of recruitment methods. But these same companies are losing out on highly productive, loyal employees if they do not reach out to this vast, traditionally untapped and underutilized segment of the IT labor force.

The National Organization on Disability’s CEO Council, which represents some of the top employers in the United States, reports that getting advice from people who understand “disability culture” is a definite plus when considering how to approach Americans with disabilities. A good starting point is West Virginia University’s Job Accommodation Network—a consulting service that provides information about job accommodations and the employability of people with disabilities.

  • The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that an employer cannot refuse to hire an applicant solely on the grounds that the applicant might injure himself or herself on the job. If an employer does refuse to hire someone on those grounds, the employer will be violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, an employer may ask disability-related questions and require medical examinations of an applicant only after the applicant has been given a conditional job offer.

How recruiters can help
Given that consulting firms and recruiters are at the forefront of filling many of the IT positions today, they are in a unique position to do a much-needed service for both their clients as well as the disabled community. These types of bold recruitment strategies, along with a little homework, will separate your firm from the rest. I suggest these initiatives for hiring IT workers with disabilities:

  • Openly recruit workers with disabilities on your Web site’s home page. Provide a special start button for these candidates.
  • Research assistive technology and accessibility products currently available. With President George W. Bush’s “New Freedom Initiative,” increases in federal investment in assistive technology research and development will help defray the cost of these products.
  • Include disability issues as part of your company’s diversity training for all employees.
  • Contact those agencies that are devoted to the recruitment of disabled and senior workers. There’s HirePotential, a placement service for disabled workers, veterans, and people over age 55; JobAccess, a firm that works with companies, the government, and nonprofits to employ people with disabilities; and the National Business and Disability Council, which helps recent college graduates with disabilities find employment with Fortune 1000 companies.

Tax benefits for your firm
By recruiting and hiring workers with disabilities, your firm will not only help this underemployed demographic become an active part of today’s workforce, it will also benefit from several government incentives. Among them are:

  • Tax Deduction to Remove Architectural and Transportation Barriers to People with Disabilities and Elderly Individuals (Title 26, Internal Revenue Code, Section 190)
  • Disabled Access Tax Credit (Title 26, Internal Revenue Code, section 44)
  • Targeted Jobs Tax Credit (Title 26, Internal Revenue Code, section 51). Employers are eligible to receive a tax credit in the amount of 40 percent of the first $6,000 of first-year wages of a new employee who has a disability. For an employer to qualify for the credit, a worker must have been employed for at least 90 days or have completed at least 120 hours of work for the employer.
  • A proposal by President Bush’s New Freedom Initiative makes a company’s contribution of computer and Internet access for home use by employees with disabilities a tax-free benefit. This proposal will not only encourage more employers to provide these services to disabled workers, it will also allow those employees to take advantage of the flexibility of teleworking, which will expand the universe of potential and accessible employment.
  • To encourage small businesses to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, legislation was signed into law in 1990 that provides a credit for 50 percent of eligible expenses related to assistive technologies (up to $5,000 a year).

The bottom line on workers with disabilities
Affirmative Action was designed to give all Americans the same opportunities to be productive citizens. It’s hypocritical for a company to call itself an “equal opportunity employer” while choosing which groups to extend equanimity to in their diversity recruitment goals. We must accommodate the changing face of today’s workforce.

Above all, listen to consultants with disabilities. Don’t assume you know what a person’s abilities are. After all, it’s ability—not disability—that counts.
If you feel that you’ve faced discrimination because of your disability, you can seek assistance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act. To start an investigation of your claim, you must first file a complaint at the local EEOC office. If you live in a state with laws that protect workers against discrimination based on physical or mental disability, you can choose to file a complaint under your state’s law, the ADA, or both. For more information about disability discrimination on the job, check with the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities or the Office of the Americans with Disabilities Act.