Disabling disabilities Featured

9:33am EDT July 22, 2002

When Jeff Hadburg's eyesight deteriorated to the point where it became difficult to do his job, he easily could have found himself out of work.

Instead, Hadburg's employer, Highmark Inc., found out what could be done to accommodate his disability and keep him on the job in his position as a customer service representative, a job he had held for 14 years at the health insurance company.

But Highmark isn't simply being a benevolent employer; it is looking out for its own interests by enabling Hadburg and other employees with disabilities to continue to work. The tightest job market in three decades is encouraging companies to find innovative ways to attract employees and keep them.

"Quite frankly, it just made good business sense," says Elaine Gedman, director of corporate work force initiatives for Highmark, of the concerted effort it has made to keep employees like Hadburg on the job. "The unemployment rate is so low that finding good employees is a challenge for any organization."

In Hadburg's case, macular edema, a condition that makes it difficult to see small print and contrast on computer screens, threatened to prevent him from doing his job. In his position, Hadburg spends about 75 percent of his time at a computer screen. Through a process that involved consultation with his physician and an agency that helps individuals with vision impairments, Highmark fitted Hadburg's computer with ZoomText, a computer software package that magnifies text on-screen.

Had Highmark not been able to accommodate him, says Hadburg, "I probably would have gone on to some kind of permanent disability program." In that scenario, Highmark would have lost a valued, experienced employee and Hadburg would have lost a job that he enjoys.

Gedman says that achieving an accommodation is not always that simple. It sometimes takes patience and a coordination of efforts by the employer, the employee and other consultants. The effort is usually worth it, she says, because it often engenders a strong loyalty to the company.

For Highmark, compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, passed 10 years ago and implemented in 1992, means access to a wider pool of employees to fill positions. The company long ago eliminated physical barriers for disabled workers; its focus in more recent years has been to help employees overcome less obvious obstacles that may prevent them from performing at their peak.

As Gedman points out, compliance is much less expensive when compared to the costs of recruitment and retention, lost productivity and the loss of business that could result if Highmark can't maintain its staffing levels.

Companywide, says Gedman, Highmark has about 70 employees for whom some kind of accommodation has been implemented. That doesn't include those with disabilities that don't impede their ability to do their jobs, such as a wheelchair-bound person, for whom accessibility to buildings and facilities exists. Fifth Avenue Place and the adjoining Penn Avenue Place, where Highmark has its offices, are both accessible.

Controlling costs

In some cases, says Gedman, agencies that advocate for individuals with certain kinds of disabilities will provide special equipment for them to do their jobs.

In others, they will work with employers to achieve a solution that works for both employer and employee. Most of the agencies, she says, are skilled at finding creative solutions that take into consideration the cost to the employer.

In one instance, an employee needed to have her legs elevated off the floor while she worked. The simple solution: a cardboard carton used to package computer paper put to use as a footrest. The cost: nothing.

Finally, Gedman emphasizes, providing accommodations isn't simply about complying with the law or about lowered expectations for employees who need some modification to their work environment to perform their jobs.

"It's not about lowering the bar," says Gedman. "It's about business, and it's about the bottom line." How to reach: Highmark Inc., www.highmark.com

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN magazine.