The Future Looks Bright for Hiring Workers With Disabilities

03/18/2015 10:17 am ET | Updated May 18, 2015

I'm going to be bold and say it: 2015 will be the best year yet for job seekers with disabilities.

Opportunities for job seekers with disabilities exist now more than ever, powered in part by long-awaited legislation. This year, for example, will be the first full year of Section 503 regulations, which tasks the nation's federal contractors to hire at least 7% of their workforce with more people with disabilities.

There's also the new Workforce Investment Opportunity Act that supports post-high school students with disabilities in developing their career paths. And state Medicaid buy-in programs, which let people with disabilities go back to work without losing much-needed healthcare benefits, are getting more popular.

In a recent survey of 235 professionals with disabilities, Think Beyond the Label found that job seekers look for jobs like anyone else--90% use LinkedIn as a job search tool--but desire more targeted outreach and disability-specific job tools to help them find meaningful work. Nine out of 10 respondents say they would use a targeted job board, while three-quarters say they want to network with employers that are actively looking to hire people with disabilities.

Businesses should take note. People with disabilities are looking to connect with you. This is the largest and most heterogeneous minority group in the U.S., with a population that ranges in age from birth to late retiree. Baby boomers, often the senior-most people in a company's workforce, are more likely to incur disability as they age.

One of the top concerns we hear on a daily basis from employers is how to identify a candidate with a disability, since asking questions about disability isn't allowed at any time during the screening, hiring or employment process. One exception is the new Section 503 voluntary disability disclosure form for federal contractors, which gives businesses the opportunity to ask the question in a supportive way, which I believe will have a profound impact on hiring processes this year.

We always tell businesses they need to go where the job seekers with disabilities are. Our survey findings clearly show that job seekers are on social media, but they're open to targeted outreach, which means disclosing their disability upfront, if they know an employer is actively looking to hire them.

Think Beyond The Label is one place for employers to find such candidates. Since 2010 we've been making the business case for hiring qualified people with disabilities. Our message--part of a national TV and print advertising campaign--is that labels gets in the way of employment, but disabilities rarely do. In other words, many people with disabilities are highly capable workers--so what if they can't hear, or see, or walk?

Our campaign message has resonated deeply with many workers and job seekers, regardless of disability. It allowed us to begin to establish a community of job seekers with disabilities, and later, to begin a dialogue with employers, including federal contractors, who were actively seeking to hire this group.

Think Beyond the Label's community of 7,000 job seekers already have disclosed the fact that they have a disability, making it easier for employers to focus on their skills and experience. This has created a level opportunity for both sides, and reduces the possibility of bias. We take great care to avoid discussions about the nature of a job seeker's disability, too.

Employers can connect with job seekers through quarterly online career fairs that operate through a shared platform with text-based chats that gives applicants a 12-minute interview window with recruiters of their choosing. To date since 2012, we've had more than 2,500 job seekers, 350 recruiters and 50 businesses participate.

What most excites employers about this model is the level of experience, education, and job readiness our pool of job seekers exhibit. More than 60% of our community of 7,000 job seekers has five or more years of relevant job experience, and are more likely to have a bachelors or master's degree than the general job-seeking population.

Essentially, Think Beyond the Label has built a house that connects job seekers with disabilities with employers who are looking for them. This year we'll be expanding our programs to include mentoring opportunities and networking events. We're cultivating more partnerships with universities and businesses that see our model as a way to meet their goals and ensure better pathways to employment for people with disabilities.

This year, we believe more forward-thinking employers will embrace both Section 503 regulations and targeted recruiting approaches to show they are an inclusive employer who values workers with disabilities. Backed by such legislation and more businesses making purposeful outreach to qualified job seekers, my prediction holds. The future looks bright, indeed.