Some Austin businesses are seeing the value in a more diverse staff.
By Jenny Hoff
When patrons walk into South Austin’s Crepe Crazy restaurant, they’re greeted with the sweet smell of crepes cooking, a menu filled with mouthwatering offerings and a quiet and peaceful atmosphere that belies its name. It also happens to mostly employ deaf individuals who may request customers point to what they want on the menu if they aren’t familiar with American Sign Language.
“I’m from California and moved here to Austin to find employment,” says store manager Alzhen Nagrampa through an interpreter. “In California, deaf people have a really hard time finding employment. In Austin, because of the school, it’s much more deaf-friendly.”
As home to the Texas School for the Deaf and the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Austin has a large community of young people with disabilities eager to enter the workforce. While at a business like Crepe Crazy, which is owned by a deaf couple, the capabilities of those with dis- abilities are clearly valued, it’s not always as easy for people with disabilities to find jobs at businesses where hiring managers don’t have that awareness.
“When it comes to applying for a job like a regular individual, that is probably the hardest thing to do when you’re blind,” says 23-year-old Arielle Felix, who was born with a rare form of glaucoma and lost her sight completely at 9 years old. “Nobody wants to hire someone who they assume can’t do the work.”
Felix is now CEO of an online fashion business, Angel Pink, thanks to a friend who believed in her ability. Even though fashion was the last industry she thought she would enter, she’s found determination and a strong work ethic are the real keys to success in business, and she looks for team members who display that same attitude. While she’s hired two other women who are also blind, she says she doesn’t consider it an asset or a drawback, rather just one of their many features.
With a strong economy and a competitive labor market, more employers are starting to think like Felix. Unemployment for people with disabilities is the lowest it’s been in a decade, and more businesses are starting to make accommodations to attract a wider pool of talent.
Dell recently created an Autism Hiring Program, designed for applicants with autism to interview in a more comfortable environment. By working with organizations like The Arc of the Capital Area, employers like Dell and those at other Austin businesses are learning how minor shifts in traditional practices can open up the talent pool to a more diverse set of applicants.
“They structured a longer interview process to give the individual the opportunity to show off their skills in a more natural way,” says Allison Abramo, director of supported employment for The Arc. “That would be a great and not too difficult first step for companies to attract more talent.”
According to the Texas Workforce Commission, Austin’s unemployment numbers are at an all-time low. While unemployment for those with disabilities is generally higher, data from the U.S. Census in 2017 shows the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities in Travis County was 4.7 percent, compared with the overall rate of 3.2 percent for individuals ages 20 to 64 in the county’s labor force.
“Through its Texas HireAbility campaign, the Texas Workforce Commission encourages all Texans to learn more about the benefits of a workforce that is inclusive of everyone, and it highlights the benefits of hiring people with disabilities,” says Lisa Givens, communications strategist for the Texas Workforce Commission.
With today’s technology, it’s easier than ever to create a seamless work environment where someone with a disability is in no way hindered when it comes to performing his or her job. It could even be an asset. In Felix’s case, she makes sure her fashion website includes detailed descriptions of items so a blind shopper using audio software will know exactly what they’re purchasing. At Crepe Crazy, both hearing and deaf customers can order with ease, making the business a great option for the hundreds of hungry students from the Texas School for the Deaf right down the street. At Dell, the company can stay competitive in a tight labor market by providing autistic workers with the right environment to showcase their talent.
“If you hire someone who can do the job, they may have a deficit in some other area,” Abramo says. “But with your support, they’re going to blow your mind.”
HOW TO START THE CONVO
If you have a disability and are seeking employment or you run a business and want to learn how to diversify your workforce to include people with disabilities, here’s how to start those conversations in your community.
Become familiar with Vocational Rehabilitation Services through the Texas Workforce Commission. This group helps people with disabilities acquire the skills they need to work in their preferred industries and helps match businesses with job seekers who meet qualifications.
Talk to business owners who have hired people with disabilities. The biggest hurdle, says The Arc of the Capital Area’s Allison Abramo, is often the fear hiring managers have of the unknown. Whether it’s the fear of litigation or poten- tial costs, it’s important to be honest about your concerns and talk to other business owners who have already made changes. The Texas HireAbility campaign through the Texas Workforce Commission also hosts events throughout the year where you can get your questions answered.
Attend networking events. There are regular inclusivity and di- versity networking events throughout Austin that offer a great way to connect with potential employers and employees.
DISABILITY EMPLOYMENT BY THE NUMBERS
THIRD-LARGEST According to the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy, people with disabilities comprise the third-largest market segment in the United States.
8 PERCENT Bureau of Labor Statistics show the national unemploy- ment rate for people with disabilities was 8 percent in 2018, down from 9.2 percent in 2017.
10.7 MILLION According to a report produced in part by the American Association of People with Disabilities, if U.S. companies more actively embraced disability inclusion in their workforce, they would gain access to a new talent.