Bill seeks to encourage employers to hire Hoosiers with disabilities

By: - February 6, 2023 7:00 am

Four in five Hoosiers with disabilities are unemployed – but some legislators hope to change that. (Photo by Luis Alvarez/Getty Images)

Four out of every five Hoosiers with disabilities are unemployed, spanning the spectrum of Hoosiers with a physical disability or Hoosiers with a developmental disability. Many want to work and live independently but encounter barriers outside of their control – whether it’s a transportation issue or employer stigma. 

Hannah Carlock, the senior director of public affairs with the Arc of Indiana (Photo from the Arc of Indiana website)

“A lot of people with disabilities can’t drive or they don’t have an accessible vehicle… finding accessible housing is very difficult, especially affordable (and) accessible housing,” said Hannah Carlock, the senior director of public affairs for The Arc of Indiana. “The good thing is, over the past couple of years, there have been more conversations about hiring people with disabilities.”

The Arc of Indiana primarily works with Hoosiers with developmental or intellectual disabilities but coordinates their lobbying efforts at the Statehouse to advocate for Hoosiers of all disabilities. 

Arc provides workforce training to Hoosiers with disabilities at their Erskine Green Training Institute, and helps combat myths about employing Hoosiers with disabilities. As an incentive, several legislative bills have proposed a tax credit to encourage business owners to consider this often overlooked group.

“People with disabilities want to be treated just like anybody else. When they’re talking, they want you to listen like how I want you to pay attention and listen to me,” Carlock said. “Some might take a little bit longer to talk or try to find their words or they may stutter. But… they’re just like any other human.”

Combating misinformation about workers with disabilities

Just over one in four Hoosiers have a disability, or 27%, making unemployed Hoosiers with disabilities a large portion of the population. At the same time, employers are scrambling to find job applicants, as the unemployment rate sinks but job openings creep up. 

But myths about hiring employees with disabilities give some employers pause, though resources exist to alleviate any concerns. For example, most disability accommodations are easier — and cheaper — than most employers anticipate.

Examples of workplace accommodations, from Virginia Commonwealth University:

  • Suspending tools from the ceiling to balance weight
  • Using a cart to move assembly parts
  • A tape recorder with periodic reminders to help an employee stay on task
  • Laminated cards with basic lists of task items
  • Adjusting equipment to accommodate muscle weakness
  • Automotive repair creepers 
  • Braille printers

According to Virginia Commonwealth University, 15% of accommodations cost employers nothing and slightly more than half, 51%, cost between $1 and $500. Only 34% of accommodations cost more than $500. But the majority of employees, 73%, don’t require any accommodation.

Certain disabilities might need physical accommodations to their space – such as lowering a counter for a wheelchair user or installing a ramp – but others will need more frequent breaks or places to sit throughout the entirety of their shift. 

“Not every disability is going to cost a ton of money to an employer. It’s just what would work best for the employee and what works best for the employer and his business,” Carlock said. 

Carlock said people still thought – more than three decades after studies disputing the falsehood – that employees with disabilities were more likely to have on-the-job accidents and couldn’t meet performance standards. 

“Specifically for somebody with an intellectual or developmental disability – once they learn something, they do it repetitively in the exact same way,” Carlock said. “Whereas sometimes I (as somebody without an intellectual or developmental disability) might try to find a quicker way to do it that might lead to me getting injured.”

On some metrics, employees with disabilities are more reliable than other employees and boost company morale

Encouraging employers to hire people with disabilities

Freshman Rep. Robb Greene, R-Shelbyville, has a special interest in advocating for people with disabilities after his son was diagnosed with autism three years ago. Greene’s son, now 6, serves as an impetus to try and improve conditions for underemployed Hoosiers with disabilities. 

“Meaningful work is what gives you a degree of independence, of dignity and respect,” Greene said. “(House Bill 1559) encourages true integration into the workplace.”

Greene’s bill specifically calls for equal pay, regardless of ability, rejecting the former model of sheltered workshops. Sheltered workshops exclusively hired Hoosiers with disabilities for subminimum wages, segregated from the greater community without benefits or worker safety.

Rep. Robb Greene, R-Shelbyville (Photo from the House Republicans)

Roughly 2,000 Hoosiers still labor in 37 of these types of workspaces, though Indiana has started to transition those employees to more integrated opportunities. Arc of Indiana has its own program for these employees, Career Counseling and Referral Services, and has advocated for the change in previous years. 

“I think it’s important to maintain that dignity and aspect of your job,” Greene said. “It’s exactly what anybody else would ask.”

Another bill working its way through the statehouse that encourages employers to hire Hoosiers with disabilities comes from Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany. His bill includes workforce training and grants to help offset potential costs.

Benefits cliff discourages work

Greene’s proposal would establish a tax credit for employers, with larger credits going to smaller businesses. He highlighted two Hoosier companies – BeeFree in Noblesville and No Label at the Table in Carmel – that formed to care for and employ their own children with autism spectrum disorder. 

Greene said that parents of children with disabilities often had to create these opportunities for their children because benefits for Hoosiers with disabilities disappeared in adulthood.

“Indiana’s actually a great state for early intervention,” Greene said. “But once you age out of that primary intervention, it’s really anybody’s guess.”

Carlock noted some high school interventions designed to alleviate this – primarily Pre-Employment Transition Services – that taught soft skills to help children with disabilities find work. 

“Schools pretty much pay for all of these different services for (Hoosiers with disabilities) since you were pretty much a baby,” Carlock said. “You can be in school until age 22 and for all of your life you’ve these services and supports. But then you don’t know what to do (after) because you no longer have (that).”

But benefit cliffs, particularly for those with Medicaid waivers to cover specific assistance, discouraged employees with disabilities from seeking better work, Carlock said. 

A breakdown of the estimated 1,382,302 Hoosiers who live with a disability. (Chart from the CDC)

“They want to work but they’re also scared to take a job or even take a higher paying job… because they’ll be making too much and they’ll lose their Medicaid benefits,” Carlock said. “Those Medicaid benefits really do help them continue to live their daily life and be healthy.

Having a disability is expensive. According to data with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average person with a disability spends roughly $16,973 annually on health care. That number doesn’t include specialized services like an adapted vehicle, which can cost up to $80,000

A December story from the Indiana Capital Chronicle highlighted a phlebotomist wheelchair user who limits herself to part-time work to keep her Medicaid benefits, noting that any raise or salary increase she had wouldn’t begin to cover the supports and services she needed.

“We would like to see a bit of a buffer… because it’s not helping them down the road,” Carlock said. “We would like to see a little bit more of a transition.”

Carlock highlighted a bill from Sen. Shelli Yoder, D-Bloomington, that proposes a phased-in approach but noted that the expense endangered its chances for a hearing this session. 

“But I feel like the more people that we get into the workforce, hopefully we’ll be able to move that kind of legislation in the future,” Carlock said. 

Two large Indiana employers did a particularly good job of hiring and accommodating employees with disabilities, Carlock said: IU Health and Toyota. She hoped that their advocacy pushed other businesses to follow suit, particularly in this time when employers were scrambling for workers.

“I feel like since those big fish and Indiana are starting to do that, it might lead the way for more opportunities,” Carlock said. “If they see that this is an opportunity, (employers) might jump on it because they do need to fill that job.”


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Whitney Downard
Whitney Downard

A native of upstate New York, Whitney previously covered statehouse politics for CNHI’s nine Indiana papers, focusing on long-term healthcare facilities and local government. Prior to her foray into Indiana politics, she worked as a general assignment reporter for The Meridian Star in Meridian, Mississippi. Whitney is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University (#GoBonnies!), a community theater enthusiast and cat mom.