Antonio DeRosa’s first thought when considering whether to hire a disabled employee was, "What’s in it for me?" That was 15 years ago, and since hiring his first disabled worker, DeRosa’s On A Roll sandwich shop in Media, Pennsylvania, has employed a steady stream of people from a nearby center for youth with special needs. DeRosa, whose 2007 sales were about $1 million, says the disabled workers have proven to be reliable, motivated and inspiring to everyone around them. "It makes my business so much better," he says.
At a time when many entrepreneurs complain of a worker shortage, disabled employees represent a large, untapped pool of potential workers, says Rosemarie Rossetti, a speaker and advocate for the disabled. Twenty percent of the population has some sort of disability, she says, and more than 65 percent of them say they are unemployed or underemployed.
Hiring disabled workers could bring business owners many benefits. Annual turnover for disabled employees is lower than for other workers, Rossetti says. "They’re very good workers. They’re more motivated and on the job for longer periods of time."
DeRosa, 46, has noticed that other employees and even customers tend to have better attitudes when being served by one of his disabled employees. He also benefits personally. "It just pulls you into not only being a better person—that’s a little cliché—but doing the right thing," he says. "And when you do the right thing, good things happen."
The bad things that employers worry about when hiring a disabled worker rarely happen. Many are concerned about having to build wheelchair ramps, modify employee restrooms or make similarly costly modifications. But the cost of accommodating disabled em-ployees is typically zero, according to a 2007 study reported by Job Accommodation Network, a government agency. The same study reported many benefits for the employer, from improved employee retention to a larger customer base.
DeRosa, who now spends part of his time recruiting other employers to hire disabled workers, says it’s not for every entrepreneur. You need patience, flexibility and the ability to look past disabilities to see abilities. Rossetti says hiring disabled workers may get easier, however, with improvements in technological aids such as voice-activated software and the increased acceptance of telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements favored by people who are disabled.
For now, entrepreneurs can find disabled employees by checking job boards for disabled candidates, contacting local organizations that work with the disabled, or getting in touch with their state’s bureau of vocational rehabilitation, Rossetti says. It is likely to be well worth the effort you take to seek them out, according to DeRosa: "I find it to be a win-win situation. You get an employee who’s very dedicated to the job, very conscientious and very loyal."
—By Mark Henricks, who writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.
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