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Kris Foss sits down with WestFair Online

nonprofit consulting service in Fairfield County is helping corporations recruit qualified talent among disabled persons, a demographic with higher rates of unemployment and underemployment and a lesser share of white-collar occupations among its ranks than the rest of the American population.

Kristine Foss disability solutions
Kristine Foss, managing director of Disability Solutions, at her office in Bethel. Photo by Phil Hall.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 18 percent of persons with a disability were employed full time and 34 percent were employed part time in 2016. Workers with a disability were more concentrated in service-related occupations than those with no disability ­— 21.3 percent of the disabled workforce, compared with 17.6 percent of workers with no disability.

Among workers with disabilities, 31.7 percent worked in management, professional and related occupations, compared with 39.5 percent of nondisabled workers who held such white-collar jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While the national unemployment rate is 4.1 percent, unemployment for persons with a disability is 10.5 percent, according to the federal agency. That is 3 percent higher than the most recent unemployment rate for African-Americans, at 7.5 percent, and well above the 4.8 percent unemployment rate for Hispanics.

“When we talk about people with disabilities, we are talking about a really diverse group,” said Kristine Foss, managing director of Disability Solutions in Bethel. “There is a wide range of disabilities, and with that comes a wide range of education levels, job experience and skill certifications.”

Foss pointed to another federal statistic that cited one in five Americans as having a disability. That number could shift to one in four Americans as an aging population experiences new health-related issues that would lead to temporary or long-term disability.

“Sometimes people are working alongside someone with a disability and may not even be aware of it,” Foss said.

Operating under the motto “Changing minds and changing lives,” Disability Solutions began five years ago as a division within Ability Beyond, a nonprofit headquartered in Bethel that helps mentally and physically disabled people secure residential, educational and occupational independence. With Disability Solutions, the agency began direct outreach to employers to consider hiring workers with disabilities.

Foss and her eight-person team works with the human resources offices at large and midsize companies across the U.S. to identify employment opportunities for disabled people. “We get to know their talent needs, their business goals and objectives, what a day in the life is like at this company in different roles, and we help them set up a playbook and implement that,” said Foss.

She said Disability Solutions’ consulting fee is structured to the parameters of the project undertaken at a company and is not pegged to targeted employment quotas. “We don’t do a per-hire basis” for fees, Foss said.

When Disability Solutions began, Foss and her team leveraged existing relations between Ability Beyond and its major corporate sponsors. “PepsiCo was the first company we worked with and we are continuing to work with them across nine different locations across the country,” she said. PepsiCo, headquartered in Purchase in Westchester County, hired more than 300 people with disabilities following Disability Solutions’ input.

The British company Aon plc, Aramark, American Express, the German company DB Schenker, Office Depot and Staples are among Disability Solutions’ clients. The nonprofit has also teamed with veterans groups, including the Wounded Warriors Project, to help former servicemembers with disabilities gain access to employment.

Foss also gets the word out by speaking at conferences and seminars related to diversity in hiring, as well as through “a lot of cold calling,” she said. She said many human resources officers still have misperceptions of what would be required to provide employment for those with disabilities.

“A lot of companies have questions on whether they’ll need special accommodations, tools and resources. Many times, they don’t need anything out of the ordinary. What we find is that sometimes there are quick fixes or resources that cost under $500,” Foss said.

Some hiring officers are nervous when discussing the subject, she said. “I’ll get calls sometimes about what kinds of jobs can a person with a disability do. It’s not necessarily a bad question. We get to know their corporate goals and help them to find talent who happen to have disabilities that meet their qualifications.”

An especially challenging area in working with potential employers has been the job interview process for people with autism spectrum disorder. Human resource officers and recruiters who rely on a standard list of behavioral questions are often uncertain how to react to the communications skills of someone with autism, leading them to doubt whether that person will be successful in the job. Disability Solutions counselors helps companies identify ways to address the communications skills of autistic job applicants.

Disability Solutions has placed workers at multiple levels of the corporate chain, Foss said. The highest-ranking disabled hires have been salaried managers in PepsiCo’s distribution center and Synchrony Financial’s call centers.

“Whatever the job the company has, there are people with talent out there,” Foss said.

Disability Solutions also runs a job board on its website with more than 10,000 listings from companies and organizations across the country. Foss said that as more U.S. companies bring disabled people into the workforce, their example is held up to other countries where hiring is low or nonexistent for the disabled.

“Now we are seeing the power that U.S. companies can have in transferring this approach of what is being done in the U.S. to their global locations,” she said.

Phil Hall is a former United Nations-based reporter for Fairchild Broadcast News, the author of seven books, the host of the SoundCloud podcast “The Online Movie Show” and a writer with credits in The New York Times, New York Daily News and Wired.
 
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