07/21/2014 03:43 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

A Smarter Way to Hire Job Seekers With Disabilities

Here's a common scenario many in today's economy can relate to: You have a college degree, work experience and you're looking for a job. Here's the not-so-common part: you also happen to have a disability.

But wait: Having a disability may actually give you an edge in getting a job today, because there are new regulations that are supposed to provide incentives to businesses to hire you. So recruiters are looking for you because you have skills and a disability.

Wait again: Asking outright about your disability is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act -- so recruiters are afraid to ask questions or voice concerns. Frustrated yet?

Fortunately, there's a way to take lemons and make lemonade. Last week we launched Smart Hire, a free program for businesses that takes the guess work out of connecting with candidates with disabilities. Through Smart Hire, businesses connect directly to a pool of pre-screened and pre-qualified job and internship seekers with disabilities who have agreed to share their resume and contact information with recruiters.

Smart Hire features mini snapshots of candidates with disabilities, including their academic, work, and leadership experience. To participate, job seekers must have at least a four-year college degree and be actively searching for a job in a professional industry. Internship seekers must be working towards a four-year college or advanced degree.

This is especially critical now as the nation's 250,000 federal contractors still struggle to meet the Dept. of Labor's revised federal hiring requirements known as Section 503. Since March 2014, the government has required federal contractors and subcontractors to work towards filling at least 7 percent of their open jobs with people with disabilities. The new voluntary disclosure form helps, but not everyone wants to permanently reveal their disability upfront unless the benefits are evident.

And innovation is sorely needed. The 2013 unemployment rate for people with disabilities in the U.S. was 13.2 percent, vs. 7.1 percent for the overall working-age populations. Large companies with ongoing hiring needs already do heavy recruiting across different diversity groups, but the traditional ways of attracting top talent -- career fairs and jobs boards -- can only go so far when it comes to finding a qualified person with a disability.

For job seekers, the benefits of Smart Hire are unanimously clear. The program removes the hassle of trying to land an interview and put their best foot forward while being worried that a recruiter won't make an offer due to concerns about a possible disability. Job seekers who participate in Smart Hire instead can focus their efforts on wowing the recruiter about their skills and abilities.

Once the candidate and recruiter connect, and a job offer is made, everyone wins. The job seeker finds meaningful employment. The business gains a strong employee who brings unique skills and perspective to the table. I've always said: If you want someone who thinks outside the box, hire someone who lives outside the box.

What we're trying to achieve is to facilitate an easy and proactive approach to a hiring conundrum for businesses across the nation, whatever their size. And we're initially offering this program free to businesses and jobs seekers to demonstrate the value we believe is inherent in this innovative recruiting technique.

We teamed with The Sea Glass Group, a recruiting company that specializes in placing people with disabilities in professional jobs, who vets each candidate via a telephone interview. By taking the extra legwork out of finding and screening candidates with disabilities, recruiters save time and money as they work to build a more inclusive workforce.

Since launching in 2010 with a multimillion- dollar print, TV and web advertising campaign, we've taken a different tact to help both recruiters and job seekers. We've amassed a database of 6,000 registered members. Our online career fair series in partnership with Brazen Careerist has attracted more than 30 employers from Aetna to Wells Fargo and our well-trafficked digital hub includes a jobs board for businesses specifically looking to attract job candidates with disabilities.

We've learned over the last four years that recruiters need as much help as they can get in this area. Smart Hire is the next natural step in our model -- one that we hope will help businesses hire and build a pipeline of job seekers with disabilities and open the door to more employment opportunities for this under-tapped talent pool.