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Companies Ask Workers with Disabilities to Check the Box and That's a Good Thing

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Let's not get all worked up about the new self-identification form for workers with disabilities. This form is designed to help federal contractors and subcontractors meet the new Section 503 regulations, which sets a target of a seven percent workforce comprised of employees with disabilities.

Issued by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, the form -- which is voluntary -- appears to be a huge benefit and not a negative for businesses. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits businesses from asking specific questions about whether an applicant has a disability. While a hiring manager may ask if someone can perform the essential functions of the job, asking questions about the existence of a disability is illegal.

HR departments now have the ability to attach the form as just one more item for applicants to fill out. The bonus is that employers can distance themselves from the form by saying, "It's a government regulation, not something we would ever ask under other conditions."

I think the new self-identification form opens an opportunity for companies and workers with disabilities. Let me explain.

First, for years businesses have hired individuals without knowing whether they have a disability that could affect the performance of their job. That's because while some disabilities are visible, many are not such as learning disabilities, visual impairments, seizure disorders, mental health issues, spatial processing disorders and the like. Not everyone discloses a disability in the workplace.

As a result, workers with disabilities might not ask for a needed accommodation, and their productivity at work can suffer. The new disclosure form is an opportunity to actively engage new employees and encourage them to disclose their disability so they can get the accommodations they need to succeed.

Second, without knowing how many individuals with disabilities they currently employ, companies have had a hard time reporting this number in order to show proactive hiring efforts, which is especially important for federal contractors. With the new form, businesses can to try to meet Section 503 hiring requirements in a way they haven't been able to before.

Third, the form represents a proactive approach that expands opportunities for people with disabilities -- the largest minority group in the U.S., a talent pool that tends to have longer tenures with employers, parallel productivity and fewer absentees from non-disabled peers. And it prepares businesses for the growing trend of accommodating long-term and highly valued older workers who may incur disability as they age.

Still, not every hiring manager is going to be comfortable using the new disclosure form to identify a person with a disability. Fortunately there are other ways to directly expand the workforce of employees with disabilities in a more inclusive way.

One great opportunity is for employers to participate in job fairs to connect with qualified job seekers with disabilities. A career fair gives businesses the opportunity to identify qualified workers with disabilities prior to opening positions or hiring. Hiring managers can actively engage job seekers with disabilities and spark a dialogue about their job history and interests, looking for a match for current and upcoming opportunities.

For example, Think Beyond The Label hosts four online career fairs every year in partnership with Brazen Careerist that includes nearly a dozen federal contractors that are currently hiring such as AT&T, Boeing and Pearson. Think Beyond the Label also offers accredited training workshops on hiring workers with disabilities as well as assistance understanding the utilization of flexible tax credits.

The new Section 503 requirements will help federal contractors tap into an underutilized talent pool, advance their disclosure efforts and engage employees. Companies that hire people with disabilities will create more diverse workforces that better reflect their customer base and help them enter new markets.

The bigger picture is clear. Whether to meet compliance efforts or to gain a competitive edge -- hiring people with disabilities is a strategy that smart companies will want to put into action today. The voluntary self-disclosure form marks the beginning of an opportunity for both companies and job seekers alike.