Why Owner-Managers Should Offer Equal Opportunities to People with Disabilities

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It is now widely recognised that people with disabilities suffer discrimination when it comes to employment opportunities. A report by the National Disability Authority in 2005 highlighted that the employment rate of people with disabilities aged 15 to 64 years was 37.1% while the corresponding figure for non-disabled people was 67%. An examination of employment rates by gender revealed that women have lower rates of employment than men, but that this was equally applicable to people with and without disabilities.

It was also noted in the report that data on the earnings of people with disabilities in Ireland was broadly consistent with international findings in that people with disabilities have lower hourly earnings than their non-disabled peers. The report also identified a wide range of other inequalities experienced by people with disabilities, including that just over half (50.8%) have no formal second-level educational qualifications. Finally, the report highlighted that people with disabilities are overrepresented in part-time employment.

A low level of educational attainment is just one factor that influences the capacity of a disabled person to secure employment. Other factors affecting an individual’s ability or willingness to supply their labour are likely to include: the severity of the disability, access to and within a potential workplace, beliefs about the likelihood of facing discrimination, and the trade off between employment income and benefit receipts.

But it is not just the potential employee that might be reluctant to work for a company, as employers equally may not be open to employing a person with a disability. A report by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (2006) found that owner-managers of SMEs identified a wide variety of reasons for not employing a person with a disability. These reasons included:
• Financial incentives do not necessarily meet the needs of either employer or employee,
• Employment quotas and anti-discrimination legislation has little practical effect on SME employer behaviour,
• Health and safety, and insurance regulations are perceived as a barrier,
• Recruitment and HR practices rarely recognise the value of equal opportunity.
The personal experiences of employers who may have a family member or friend who is disabled can have a positive influence towards their willingness to offer a person with a disability a position within their firm.

Mediating organisations now play a pivotal role in providing assistance in terms of increasing the awareness of the benefits of employing disabled people and in offering appropriate training support. While these mediating organisations struggle to cope with the enormous challenge that they face in educating employers to change their behaviour, some people with disabilities turn to self-employment as an alternative solution for generating income.

It is a common theme amongst business advisers that a recurring difficulty when working with owner-managers is getting them to recognise and accept their own inabilities, particularly in managing the enterprise in a positive, proactive fashion. As the adviser and owner-manager work together for solutions to the difficulties of the firm, the owner-manager is frequently unable (or more usually, unwilling) to recognise their own weaknesses while readily pointing to the inadequacies of others. When a person with a disability comes before them for interview, they can only see the disability and fail to recognise the positive contribution that can be made by that person. If only they would look at the own inabilities with a similarly critical eye, the possibility of moving the company forward would be so much easier for those who are trying to help them.

A key message that the O2 Ability Award scheme promotes is that people should stop looking at just one side of a person and broaden their vision to look at all sides of their abilities. Owner-managers should recognise the positive contributions that a person with a disability can make to a business, not just in terms of social responsibility, but in self-centred financial terms if that is their preference. Research has demonstrated that employing people with disabilities as part of the workforce enhances performance in staff recruitment and retention, increases productivity, and boosts workplace diversity.

If you are an owner-manger reading this article and you want to improve the performance of your enterprise, then I am asking you to do two things. The first is to open your mind to the wonderful opportunities and benefits that come with employing people with disabilities. Look at what they can contribute, not what they cannot do. Everyone one of us is incapable in some way of doing a multitude of things, so stop focusing on the negatives.

The second task is to acknowledge how much your own weaknesses are holding back your company. I want you to write down your weaknesses and I also want you to ask your line managers to write down what they consider to be your weaknesses. When you have combined the lists, write down what positive actions you will take to remedy your weaknesses. As a starter, try trusting your staff. Remember, even the greatest entrepreneurs that ever lived were not experts in all areas of management, but they were willing to recognise their weaknesses and did something about them. Chances are that the biggest difficulty in the firm is you. It usually is!

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About the Author:

Professor Thomas M. Cooney (B.Comm, MBA, PhD, MMII, MCIM, FIMCA)

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