West Michigan employers leading the way in accessible workplaces

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than twice that of those without a disability.
One major barrier to tapping into this often-ignored labor market is creating accessible workplaces that go beyond the basic requirements laid out under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.
Research from Accenture, in partnership with Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities, reveals companies that embrace best practices for employing and supporting more people with disabilities in their workforce have outperformed their peers.
That 2018 study found that companies that champion individuals with disabilities in the workplace benefited financially. Diversity, equity and inclusion practices were tied to a 28% rise in revenue and a 30% climb in economic profit margin, compared with peer companies that scored lower on DEI practices. 

Investments made by employers in creating a workplace that supports those with disabilities are relatively small. A study by the Job Accommodation Network found that 58% of accommodations don't require an employer to spend any money, while the remaining 42% usually cost less than $500 and employers can find tax incentives to help them cover the expense. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also underscored the value of using technology to create flexible accommodations for those with disabilities, who in many cases may need to work remotely rather than coming into a workplace. 

"It shouldn’t take a crisis to include people with disabilities. I’m a firm believer that accessibility — in various forms — is good for everyone," wrote West Michigan accessibility advocate Lucia Rios, in a column about how adapting to a non-contact world during the pandemic showed how adaptable workplace accommodations can become.

Local businesses take initiative

Across West Michigan, many employers understand the power of harnessing the many talents of people with disabilities. We asked the region's four Centers for Independent Living – Disability Network Lakeshore, Disability Network West Michigan, Disability Advocates of Kent County, and Disability Network Southwest Michigan – to share some examples of employers that are leading the way in providing accessible accommodations.

Barfly Ventures. The Grand Rapids-based restaurant chain – which includes HopCat, Stella's Lounge, and Grand Rapids Brewing Company – partnered with Disability Advocates of Kent County to ensure that accommodations for employees with disabilities are available and attainable. “We worked with them to revise any necessary policies so that their intentional hiring of persons with disabilities was clear,” says Peggy Helsel, Disability Advocate’s Director of Development.

Family Farm & Home. The locally-owned retailer in Allendale has opened its doors to workplace programs that support people with disabilities. One is a pre-employment transition service geared to people ages 16 to 26 that provides workplace learning experiences. The store also partners with Disability Network West Michigan to support vocational rehabilitation programs through the Veterans Association, says Amanda Van Tubergen, Programs Manager for Disability Network West Michigan. 
Haworth. The Holland office furniture manufacturer is working on making its workplace more accessible for neurodivergent employees. Haworth’s empirical research has discovered a strong correlation between giving employees resources to set them up for success and a lower level of stress in the workforce. This has led to better employee retention levels. “By spending resources and time to promote inclusion in design, employees can see that the organization cares about people with disabilities inside and outside the organization,” says Michael Niederer, with Disability Network Lakeshore.

Hope College. The private liberal arts college in Holland provides an array of accommodations to employees with disabilities. These range from flexible daily start times to the addition of a small cot in an employee’s office for those who need to rest during the day. "While some organizations might fear making an accommodation, Hope College has embraced these changes," says DNL's Niederer.

Kalamazoo Public Library. The public institution brought in Disability Network Southwest Michigan to look at the physical accessibility of all its branches and to make sure people had access to programs. Staff members are trained to connect with people with disabilities and offer them the support that they need. “They were really one of the first organizations that came to us and asked for ableism training,” says Kristen Potts, resource development and operations director at Disability Network Southwest. “They really wanted to look at the systemic oppression that people with disabilities experience in the world and try to fix things within their own system so that that doesn't occur for their patrons with disabilities.”

Meijer. The Walker-based Midwest retailer is committed to hiring people with disabilities and providing the necessary accommodations and tools to make the employees successful. “Meijer reached out to Disability Advocates to review its current accommodation policy and make it more inclusive and less intimidating. Once the policy was revised, Meijer intentionally notified all employees of the new process and the ease of it,” explains Disability Advocates’ Helsel.

Spectrum Health. The Grand Rapids-based health care system partnered with AdaptAbilities to create a more accessible workplace. “This isn’t just the more obvious accessibility concerns like wheelchair-friendly office space, but smaller items that might be easily forgotten, like low vision business cards,” DNL’s Niederer says.

Whirlpool. The Benton Harbor home appliance manufacturer has an internal employee group created to support people with disabilities. “They’re very focused on making sure that internally at Whirlpool people are welcomed and that a disability is not looked at as something that's wrong or needs to be fixed,” says Disability Network Southwest’s Potts.

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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