Small Business at Work—for Disability Inclusion

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Image of woman with a prosthetic leg working in an office with a colleague.Small Business at Work—for Disability Inclusion
By Wendy Strobel Gower

Small businesses are major drivers of job growth in the U.S., employing nearly half of the nation’s private-sector workforce. But, for a variety of reasons, they have historically employed people with disabilities at a lower rate than their larger counterparts.

Why? And how can we help small businesses increase disability inclusion, for the benefit of them, job seekers with disabilities, and their local communities? Those are the questions my colleagues and I at Cornell University’s Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability set out to answer in a 2019 research study for the Northeast ADA Center, which we manage under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).

Findings revealed several common information gaps among small business owners, human resources staff, managers, and front-line supervisors related to disability employment, including their requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For example, the research showed that many small businesses have questions about the definition of disability under the law, what can and cannot be asked of job applicants or employees, and how to develop an effective accommodation process.

These information needs informed the development of Small Business at Work, a no-cost, web-based resource that offers easy-to-understand, practical advice on disability employment best practices and expert guidance on the ADA’s employment provisions so that small businesses can benefit from the skills and talents of qualified people with disabilities.

Indeed, there is a strong bottom line argument for disability inclusion in businesses of all sizes. By virtue of their experience with disability, employees with disabilities often bring fresh perspectives on how to solve problems and achieve business success. They also offer insight into a large and expanding customer segment.

Moreover, small businesses that hire people with disabilities might qualify for certain tax incentives, and for some there is an additional benefit. A federal law, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, requires federal contractors and subcontractors to take proactive steps to employ people with disabilities. Some states also have policies that encourage or require their contractors to take steps to increase disability inclusion among their workforces as a condition of doing business with the state government. So being disability inclusive can provide an edge when pursuing new business opportunities.

That said, there is a more important reason for promoting greater disability inclusion in our nation’s small businesses. In addition to creating jobs and providing goods and services, small businesses often have a strong impact on local culture and norms. By fostering a workplace inclusive of the skills and talents of people with disabilities, small businesses can make a big difference in their communities—and we’re committed to helping them do so.

The Northeast ADA Center is a member of the ADA National Network, funded by NIDILRR. It provides information, guidance, and training on implementation of all aspects of the ADA to stakeholders throughout New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

About the Author
Wendy Strobel Gower is Program Director at the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University and Director of the Northeast ADA Center.

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