By Joyce Bender
President and CEO of Bender Consulting Services

As I meet with executives across the United States to discuss their willingness to employ Americans with disabilities, I am frequently told how accessible their building is and how they have complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act in the area of architectural design and construction.

Some executives actually boast about the superior accessible ramps and accessible restrooms they have at their company. Many, many, times when I first visit a corporation, a representative from Human Resources meets me and wants to give me a "tour" of the facilities to see the "barrier free" environment. This "tour" always amazes me, as they have everything except one thing — people with disabilities working there. You see the ramps and the Braille and wonder who is using them?

Please do not mistake my comments. I really do appreciate corporations and agencies making sure their buildings are accessible. After all, we cannot get in the building if it is not accessible. We need that opening to get in the door. The question remains though, why is the unemployment of Americans with disabilities so high if we have "barrier free" environments?

The fact is the architectural barriers are not the barriers to employment. Attitudinal barriers are the barriers to employment.

One of the major reasons people with disabilities are not gaining employment is due to an attitudinal barrier based on pity. Pity is like racism — it only leads to one thing and that is unemployment or underemployment. When you pity a person, you are really saying you feel sorry for them because you believe they are inferior. People with disabilities do not need pity — they need an opportunity to compete equally.

One of the greatest civil rights leaders of all time is the Honorable Tony Coelho, the author of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I love his quote — "Give us the right to be fired!" This does not mean we want to be fired; this means we want to be treated equally. We want the chance to compete. We cannot get that chance unless you are willing to hire us.

This attitude of pity causes employers to think that hiring a person with a disability will result in additional costs to the bottom line, because the person with a disability will need so much support and coaching and help to be successful. In other words, the fear is that the person will be inferior at work and will require so much assistance that it will not be a good business investment.

The attitude of pity causes the bar to be lowered for performance and this cannot and will never be helpful. This bar is unfortunately lowered for people with disabilities throughout their lives; this must stop.

A skilled individual with or without a disability who has initiative will be successful on the job. Many people with disabilities have great initiative as a result of having to live a life where without initiative; they would be doomed to fail. Give us a chance — we can perform at a high level. Just as it is in the rest of the world, you must hire the right person. In the case of people with disabilities, you will have a large untapped labor pool to select your next employee from.

People with disabilities want to be treated like everyone else. We do not want "special" treatment. We may need an accommodation to work; but, many of you wear eyeglasses to see. For you, that is an accommodation.

Pity is what causes the expectations to be set lower from the beginning and this causes other employees to think people with disabilities will not carry their weight on the job. If the person is performing well, you promote them. If the person is not doing the job, you put them on a performance improvement plan and then if they are not successful, you terminate them. Again, no pity. Treat people with disabilities as would treat your other employees.

When you send a signal that the supervisor will probably have to give special treatment and not expect the same work from the employee as from others — people with disabilities are doomed to fail.

The ideas of "special" treatment, "not carrying their weight", and not raising the bar are all examples of pity; this barrier is attitudinal — it is not anything architectural.

Alan Faneca, number 66 for the Pittsburgh Steelers, protected Ben Roethlisberger this year and the Steelers won the Super Bowl. Alan has disclosed that he is a person with epilepsy and speaks to young people about this. I doubt that Bill Cowher told the other Steelers to give him special treatment, as he is a person with epilepsy. I know the Colts, Broncos, and Seahawks did not give him special treatment for this reason.

People with disabilities want to work. At the end of the day, remember — people with disabilities want "Paychecks not Pity."™

Article copyright © Joyce Bender, Bender Consulting Services. All Rights Reserved