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Updated: September 4, 2023 Editorial

Editorial: Tap into the disabled workforce

Timothy Johnson says companies usually need some convincing to hire workers with intellectual and development disabilities, but once they do, the businesses are over the moon with the results.

As vice president of the ASPiRE! program at Worcester nonprofit Seven Hills Foundation, Johnson creates partnerships with employers throughout Central Massachusetts to arrange jobs for Seven Hills program participants. He has partnered with companies like Leominster office furniture manufacturer AIS, where a small group of Seven Hills participants were at first given very limited work and the chance to prove themselves.

What AIS found from that small test case is the work the group produced had a 0% product rejection rate, Johnson said. Those workers have a high focus on precision and doing the job right the first time. Since employed individuals with disabilities tend to have a much lower turnover rate than workers without disabilities, the Seven Hills cohort provides consistency to AIS’ operations. Now, the manufacturer is working with other social service nonprofits, like The Arc of Opportunity in North Central Massachusetts, to hire more people from their programs.

“Companies like AIS are constantly asking us if we have more people to send,” Johnson said.

At a time when unemployment rates remain near historic lows and employers across Central Massachusetts decry a shortage of qualified workers, people with disabilities are one of the last great untapped workforces. Of the 16.4 million non-institutionalized people with disabilities in the U.S., only about a third are employed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of course, the job needs to fit each potential worker’s talents and capabilities – which is really no different whether an employee has disabilities or not – but open-minded businesses can seize on a real opportunity, if they find the proper fit.

At the beginning, businesses can be understandably wary of partnering with a program helping disabled folks find work, often believing they will need a lot of care and handholding, placing an extra burden on managers and coworkers, Johnson said. Instead, firms find people with disabilities are a reliable workforce that meets their product demands. The disabled workforce can provide consistency in jobs that historically have high turnover, like baggers at grocery stores. Businesses partnering with Seven Hills and others have found the arrangement creates a more positive dynamic with a company’s entire workforce, as employees of all abilities prefer working for a place that cares for people.

Beyond being a social good, employing workers with disabilities opens up a whole new world of possibilities for Central Massachusetts businesses. Taking the first step requires overcoming that initial trepidation, but once companies see how they and all their employees can benefit, it's a decision that can deliver a true win-win.

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