By ELIZABETH FERGUSON
Capital News Service
LANSING — Workers with disabilities are often overlooked, even if they have the right skills for a job, state officials say.
“There is tremendous talent out there in that segment of our community, and the opportunities to showcase that talent aren’t always there,” said Matt Wesaw, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
A new committee appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder is working to make sure state government is part of the solution and not the problem when it comes to identifying and working with disabled employees.
In a report issued April 1, the State Equal Opportunity and Diversity Council found state government has no program for training state employees on the importance of including disabled people in the workplace.
The council of six officials, from areas such as the office of the State Employer and the Department of Civil Rights, hopes to develop a program to educate state employees on misperceptions about disabled workers and how to remove barriers that keep disabled workers from using their talents, Wesaw said.
Before formal recommendations are made, the council will hear from public and private sector experts on employing disabled workers, said Matt Fedorchuk, a council member and acting state personnel director of the Michigan Civil Service Commission.
State entities that assist disabled people will be called on, including Michigan Rehabilitation Services, which educates private employers on the value of hiring people with disabilities, according to Wesaw.
“We are looking to share their best practices,” Wesaw said, adding that the council will see if Michigan Rehabilitation Services should start educating state employers as well.
In 2012, there were over 700,000 working-age people with disabilities in Michigan. Of these people, aged 18 to 64, over 300,000 have a college education, according to the 2012 U.S. Census.
While this large population is skilled and educated, many employers have concerns about managing disabled workers.
Some employers assume they can’t discipline or fire a disabled person if their work isn’t satisfactory, said Mike Zelley, president of the Disability Network of Michigan. But this isn’t true.
“They are treated just like everyone else,” Zelley said. “They don’t have any special protections. They either do the job or they don’t do the job.”
Zelley said employers often think disabled workers need expensive accommodations, when, for example, someone in a wheelchair might only need their desk raised.
Overcoming these misconceptions is a key goal of the new state council.
“We have a responsibility to train people,” Wesaw said, “to get them not only to recognize that they have that unconscious bias, but to get rid of it.”
When employers can look past the disabilities of applicants, they can see the skills and talents these workers have, said Richard Carlson, president of Goodwill Industries of West Michigan in Muskegon.
Those who are mobility or visually impaired, for example, can provide customer service skills for government or private customer service call centers, according to Carlson. And people on the autism spectrum often have powerful memories and detailed thinking skills.
“We are missing the opportunity to engage and to employ people with a broad range of talents,” Carlson said.
By ELIZABETH FERGUSON