Observation Deck

Getting Everyone on the Team

Want to hire people with disabilities? Take concrete steps.

When Bert Burns co-founded Georgia-based UroMed almost two decades ago, four of his six co-founders were in wheelchairs. From the beginning, Burns sought out people with disabilities for employment positions. By the time he sold the company, about 20% of UroMed’s 100 employees were wheelchair users.

All of the sales people on staff were experts on disposable catheters and continence care medical supplies, but Burns concedes that many prospective customers paid a little more attention to sales people who used wheelchairs.

“If I’m rolling into a rehab center, and you’re walking into a rehab center, I get instant credibility whether I deserve it or not,” muses the 54-year-old Burns, a C7 quadriplegic who was injured in his 20s. “If I’m trying to sell you a wheelchair, I probably know what I’m talking about; whether I actually do or not, that is a whole other question, but I get the credibility.”

As a former recreational therapist, Burns found most of his employees by calling local rehabilitation departments and speaking to other recreational therapists. Burns also cultivated contacts at social work departments and among case managers. “You usually have someone [in hospitals and/or rehab departments] who is in charge of helping people find jobs,” he says, “whether it be occupational therapists, social workers, or case managers.”

When wheelchair users arrived at UroMed, particularly sales people, accommodations were fairly easy. Most standard desks accommodate wheelchairs, with only a slight raising occasionally necessary. In one case, shelves were lowered, allowing an employee to easily run the shipping department from his wheelchair.

Employee Investments Pay Dividends

At Pride Mobility Products Corp, the commitment to hiring people with disabilities starts at the top, with chairman and CEO Scott Meuser choosing to partner with Getting Hired (www.gettinghired.com), a job search engine for people with disabilities. “We also have a very strong relationship with a Veterans’ representative through Pennsylvania CareerLink,” says Meuser. “CareerLink promotes our company to disabled veterans, and works with Paralyzed Veterans of America.”

In addition to Pride’s collaboration with these organizations, the Pennsylvaniabased company hosts an annual Disability Mentoring Day. The event brings students with disabilities into the workplace where they can learn about various career paths and structure their educational pursuits accordingly.

According to James Weisman, longtime president and CEO of New York-based United Spinal Association, government agencies and larger corporations (such as Pride) have done a good job of hiring more people with disabilities, and not being “scared off” by accommodations. However, Weisman laments that “many small businesses have not caught on, because many are afraid, and they don’t know what they’re afraid of.”

Proactive employers at Pride say fears are largely unfounded. “Other organizations may perceive that there is an additional cost or inconvenience with employing individuals with disabilities,” says Meuser. “We have learned first-hand that these employees want to contribute to the success of our organization. Reasonable accommodations are well worth the investment.”

“Prospective employers may think that people with disabilities get sick more often,” adds Burns, who now works with an educational program called Life After Spinal Cord Injury (LASCI). “I’m sick far less than most of my able bodied friends, and studies show that most people with disabilities who work actually have a better attendance and call in sick less … I did not hire people with disabilities as a feel-good move. It was beneficial to me as an owner.”

For companies that make concerted efforts to find qualified candidates with disabilities, Burns cautions that it won’t be easy. Some of the challenge is convincing people that work is more rewarding than living on benefits. “Many times I would find someone who I thought was good,” Burns. explains “I would offer a job where they might make $2,500 a month to begin. With taxes, insurance, etc, they are probably bringing home $1,800 per month, whereas they could be on social security, making $1,200 per month, with free Medicare, and not working at all. Even though social security is great, and I’m glad it’s there, it was often a disincentive to work.”

Weisman believes that under-employment among people with disabilities carries a global cost that has not yet been adequately addressed. “Employment numbers [among disabled people] are horrible,” he says, “and it’s costing society a small fortune to keep people pensioned off and living forever.”

It doesn’t have to be this way, and Weisman agrees that disabled people can bring advantages to the medical equipment workplace. “On disability-related products and services, people with disabilities like dealing with disabled sales people,” he says. “If you go to adaptive vehicle companies, for example, there are usually disabled people working there. They know what’s going on in their customers’ lives.”

Look Beyond the Disability

With wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ranks of disabled veterans have swelled. Ross Meglathery, MPA, director of VetsFirst, a program of United Spinal Association, Washington, DC, has seen the phenomenon first-hand. Warriors return with physical wounds, as well as unseen scars.

“People are concerned about post traumatic stress (PTS) and how that affects vets, regardless of whether they have other physical disabilities,” acknowledges Meglathery. “In many ways, movies like Rambo and Hurt Locker have hurt veterans, because there are plenty of people who deal with PTS and handle it. Different people have different coping mechanisms, and plenty of non veterans have PTS.”

As more is understood about PTS, vets are regaining their footing and proving to be valuable additions to many companies around the country. DME companies who wish to hire veterans, and other disabled individuals, should contact local chapters of United Spinal, VetsFirst, and/or other veterans organizations.

“From there, we can talk to our membership, and we would love to be able to assist companies,” says Meglathery. “Disabled people don’t want a handout. They just want to be integrated back into society. Reintegration is having access, but it’s also about getting back to work.”

“Ultimately, you must do your due diligence in hiring,” says Tom Ryan, president and CEO, American Association for Homecare. “Being in this industry and working with the disabled community, I find the passion is tremendous. At the end of the day, hire for the skill set and look beyond the disability.”

Resource for People with Disabilities:
Atlanta-based Wheel:Life has publications that center on sharing resources and support for people who use wheelchairs. There are currently three books available on fundraising, relationships and accessible travel. A fourth book on career advice will be published in January 2016. All can be downloaded for free at wheel-life.org/book-request-form.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of HME Business.

About the Author

Greg Thompson is director of Media Relations for Medtrade and Medtrade Spring. As a magazine editor and freelance journalist (www.seegregwrite.net), he has covered the HME industry since 2001.


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