Hey Employers: If You Build It, Job Seekers With Disabilities Will Come

We've been holding virtual career fairs for professionals with disabilities for more than a year, and employers always ask how we are able to find and authenticate a job seeker's disability status. My response always is, "If you build it right, they will come."

This question is top of mind among the nation's more than 200,000 federal contractors, who are now tasked with working to fill seven percent of their workforce with qualified people with disabilities. The Department of Labor published its final ruling on August 27, revising Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act to encourage more federal contractors -- which employ around 22 percent of the U.S. workforce -- to interview and hire people with disabilities.

For employers who are scratching their heads wondering how to comply with this ruling (it's illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act to ask a job seeker if they have a disability), I'd like to offer our innovative career fair platform as a model.

Think Beyond the Label works to connect employers to qualified job seekers with disabilities. Our mission and message -- "hire without labels" -- clearly supports job seekers with disabilities. We actively promote the business case for hiring this group to employers through our resources and hiring initiatives.

When job seekers come to our virtual career fairs, we offer a disability-friendly platform. We make sure the event is accessible from a technology standpoint, and we ask participants ahead of time if they need an accommodation, such as extra time to answer interview questions. We strive to include companies in our fairs that have publicly committed to making their workplace more diverse and inclusive.

As a result, we're fairly confident that job seekers who register for our career fairs are, in a pivotal way, self-identifying as having a disability. Our job seekers are, for the most part, comfortable with their disability status because we've created an environment in which they feel supported.

Companies that participate in disability-specific career fairs like ours are signaling their commitment to hiring an inclusive workforce -- making it more likely a candidate will disclose their disability. When a company builds a foundation that embraces inclusion, people with disabilities will come.

Finding or hiring this group isn't daunting. There already are 57 million Americans who self-identify as having a disability to the U.S. Census. Every workplace includes people with disabilities, whether the company knows it or not.

By nurturing an inclusive environment, companies can encourage their new and existing job seekers to voluntarily check off that all-important box that reveals their disability status, much like a person who is Hispanic or a veteran might. Disclosure is a critical piece of the puzzle for employers because Section 503 will require federal contractors to keep track of how many candidates they hire as part of criteria for winning new government business.

And let me clarify for those who are worried that Section 503 is an attempt to enforce hiring quotas: job seekers with disabilities still must possess the skills and experience for the role, first and foremost. Again, this isn't difficult. A quick glance, for example, at Think Beyond the Label's community of 10,000 registered users shows that 60 percent percent have five or more years of job experience. More than 50 percent have a college or advanced degree.

Moreover, people with disabilities, especially younger adults, are tech-savvy, often using technologies that both help mitigate their disabilities and make them more valuable to their employers. And they look for jobs just like anyone else, such as on job boards, career fairs and of course, through networking.

Think Beyond the Label exists to help employers make valuable connections to these qualified and still underrepresented workers. For example we'll be holding our next career fair on October 22 during National Disability Employment Awareness Month and we're about to launch Networking Beyond the Label, a new LinkedIn networking group for professionals with disabilities for sharing job leads, resume building tips and peer-to-peer interaction across the country.

We also can maximize a company's existing diversity strategy by facilitating modules on the new regulations like Section 503 or help build internal communications and diversity recruiting strategies for managers. For those companies still scratching their heads and wondering what to do next, sign on for our free webinar on Best Practices in Disability Recruiting to be held on September 25.

People with disabilities are really the last frontier for workplace equality. They represent millions of working-age Americans who just happen to have a disability. And they're ready, willing and qualified to work. Employers should reap this new and expanded opportunity to evolve their workforce, meet their diversity needs and create an inclusive and sustainable business model.

The Department of Labor's Section 503 ruling really was long overdue. Like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed in 2008, which lets women and others challenge unequal pay, the Section 503 ruling will go a long way in reducing discrimination in the workplace and advancing equal opportunity to all workers.