By Sunniva Heggertveit-Aoudia
There is an IT company called Unicus in Norway that has hired several employees with Asperger’s Syndrome. This is a profitable company with a pool of unique talents working for them (the managing director says that one employee learned Japanese on his own, another can read 2000 words per minute.) These are talents that most companies wouldn’t even bring up in an interview. The owner of Unicus had calculated that he saved the Norwegian government €1,375,000 for just one of his employees, as they are now working and not on welfare.
About two years ago I saw a TV program in France about a factory that hired only people with disabilities, also with measurable profits. I’m sure there are more companies like this around Europe, but it isn’t common.
Feedback from the former and latter employees shows that they are happy to be able to contribute to society and not feel like a burden. They earn money, they socialize and feel valued, quite the opposite of the feelings of staying home, on welfare. Employers say that they employ extremely loyal people that never miss a day of work, and benefit from previously-mentioned special talents.
Some years back I worked for a company that had a person born blind answering incoming calls. No one could hear that she was blind, as she had all the equipment needed to transfer calls and read absent messages. She was the best first impression imaginable for the company, friendly and helpful—and always present. Those people are not easy to find. The investment cost of acquiring the necessary equipment is not even a percent of the cost saved in hiring and re-hiring for 30 years. People with sight impairments are a group that very often becomes isolated, which wasn’t the case for her. The job allowed her the money to have more freedom to do what she wanted and to have a social life.
People with hidden disabilities, however, may get to the interview, but many live in fear that their employer will find out. It is fear of being stigmatized, fear of not getting the projects and promotions that they believe they rightfully can earn. In France, companies struggle to fulfill the government legislation of reserving 6% of jobs for people with disabilities. It is assumed that quite a few employees have mental disabilities; they just do not inform their employer. Mental health is still taboo enough that employees do not feel safe to “come out” as someone with a mental illness. Some people feel safer coming out as gay or lesbian than saying they have a mental illness.
Although mental health is something not share widely with people, it is less of a taboo than before. Well known people, like singer Robbie Williams and actor Ben Stiller have come forth publicly that they are bipolar—which I do believe have contributed to more openness and acceptance of what one could call “hidden disability/condition/impairment.”
Last year a Norwegian politician “came out” as bipolar. She was interviewed on TV, sharing the challenges she has in her daily life, as well as what she feels she is gaining from being bipolar. She shared that at work she brings in other angles to problems and sees other solutions than her co-workers. She also mentioned that her highs and lows make her appreciate the highs so much more, something other people possibly forget.
So, why is it so hard for employers to see the win-win situations from hiring people with physical and mental disabilities? Lack of information? Lack of will? Fear for additional work? Fear of having “funny situations” at work? I believe it is the first—lack of information. Many businesses don’t know the investment costs (how much and what is covered by the government,) they don’t know how to advertise jobs externally that don’t put off people with disabilities, and they are not aware of the benefits of hiring people with disabilities.
What can create more win-win situations and “opening the blind spot?” At the top of my mind, I’d say three core actions: hire someone to enlighten the management team(s), look at recruitment strategies and processes, and focus on creating an inclusive work environment.
Concerning the first point, awareness sessions, over the years I have acquired knowledge from disability networks and published researched that the main barrier to people with disabilities being hired and promoted is a lack of awareness among hiring managers. So I’d suggest starting there. I have seen the positive effects myself; I was lucky to work in a company where many European colleagues in D&I and HR felt passionately about hiring more people with disabilities. They conducted awareness sessions for managers and the recruitment department, contacted disability organizations to advertise and get leads, hired more people with physical or mental impairments, followed up with managers and colleagues in the hiring departments—and feedback was that the overall working environment and the company gained from it. There was no longer a blind spot to this group of talent. There is so much talent out there, go get it and create more win-win for our society!
Sunniva Heggertveit-Aoudia, owner of NORSUN Diversity and Cross-Culture Consulting, is a consultant, trainer and coach (CPCC, ACC). She has more than 20 diverse years of experience from diversity & inclusion, human resources, and customer relations. She is a diversity specialist with deep knowledge on working across cultures.