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Suzanne Robitaille Headshot

The 7 Percent Wake Up Call

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Let's call it what it is: An aspirational quota of sorts. The Department of Labor's long-anticipated final ruling is in, and will require nearly 250,000 U.S. businesses to work towards a goal that 7 percent of their workforce be qualified individuals with disabilities.

The rule refreshes Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which impacts federal contractors and subcontractors -- any company that wants to do business with the government. These are real, market-driven businesses -- like Raytheon, Boeing, Dell and PepsiCo -- that innovate on a daily basis, doing so partly to earn a share of public-sector contracts that are funded with taxpayer dollars, which amounted to $517 billion in 2012.

Federal contractors also represent 22 percent of the national workforce and offer high-paying jobs, which is why the Labor Department wants to hold these companies accountable for diverse hiring. Regulations do work, and have certainly made things easier for people with disabilities in all areas of life, from education and accommodations and even to health care, due to President Obama's reform plan.

But employment in the private sector -- that's a hard nut to crack, especially for the "middle of the pyramid," which has no real support system. These are people who use wheelchairs, sip and puff devices, walking canes, hearing aids, whose gait is off and whose words may slur. They are the ones who struggle to hear, speak or see. They may have difficulty reading, talking on the phone, walking, sitting in a loud room or doing one of the many "daily activities" the Americans with Disabilities Act mentions that people without a disability often take for granted. But this group can -- and wants -- to work.

The public system doesn't help the middle. It gives a safety net to the most severely disabled individuals. On the opposite end are high-functioning people with disabilities who don't have to disclose as long as their condition is kept in check. Think Bill Gates, who, many say, exhibits autistic-like traits that are starting to be seen as advantages in software and tech-related jobs.

The regulations are designed to help keep the middle from collapsing -- and having to apply for unemployment and disability-health benefits that will end up costing our nation much more in the long run.

The ruling could work. It's my opinion that the middle gets cancelled out by hiring managers too quickly because of indirect discrimination; they're not as physically or mentally strong as say, the next candidate who walks in the door. Yet a person with a disability, in today's day and age, can be just as qualified, largely in part of regulations like the ADA and the Individual with Disabilities Education Act.

Rich Donovan, CEO of Fifth Quadrant Analytics, a new disability consultancy, shares a different perspective. He likens the Section 503 ruling to a wake-up call. Companies will now sit up and take notice because of the ruling, he says, but his challenge at Fifth Quadrant Analytics is to "convince companies to ignore compliance and focus on measurable returns."

Demonstrating to companies that they can generate long-term value through hiring and marketing to people with disabilities will be far more effective than asking them to meet a compliance quota, Donovan says. More people with disabilities will get jobs because companies will see the value of doing so.

That takes care of their compliance issue, and also helps companies win over the largest minority segment in America -- 57 million people with disabilities -- who will appreciate the equal opportunity as it was intended. The theory that Donovan and I share is that the loyalty generated will extend into the private-sector marketplace, where people with disabilities shop, eat, travel and consume goods just like everyone else. In the U.S. this amounts to $544 billion in spending power.

Diversity is at the root of innovation. Companies that recognize this will also realize the value of a qualified candidate with a disability. The biggest accomplishment we could see from the corporate sector is for a person with a disability to walk through the door of an interviewer's office and be viewed through this prism. Then the only real question left for the interviewer is: "What can we do to recruit you?"