2016 Volume 19 Issue 1

Hiring Disabled Workers

Hiring Disabled Workers

Bringing the Whole Community into the Workforce

One of our most underserved and underutilized groups is the community of disabled persons. Too often their ability to constructively contribute to society and the recognition of their need to do so is overlooked. In this article we will discuss the economic, social, and moral obligation to be more inclusive of disabled persons in the workforce.

Symbiotic Resource Interdependencies

Resource dependence theory has long served as a lens through which to view organizations and their respective environments.[1] Based on this perspective, the competitive edge that an organization enjoys is driven primarily by the resources that it obtains and manages.[2] Perhaps this way of thinking can also be utilized to evaluate the situation of disabled individuals who want to participate in the productive economy.

The environment for a person is the collection of persons and organizations that provide resources to that person. This can include the person’s living arrangements, healthcare organizations, transportation, and access to other resources that contribute to a flourishing life for that person. One could argue that the environment for people with disabilities is relatively uncertain.[3] The strength and number of forces to contend with in the environment can be overwhelming in the absence of maintaining partnerships with others. The presence of another adult who is not disabled simplifies what would otherwise be a complicated environment. Adult helpers manage the pace of environmental change so that the disabled person is buffered, to a degree, from some unpredictability. A third component of uncertainty that is normally applied to organizations is environmental richness (the availability of resources needed to support the organization’s goals). Without partnerships with others, either voluntary or involuntary, a disabled individual would find that even basic resources for sustenance (food, shelter, protection) would be difficult to obtain on a consistent basis.

The interdependency between a person with Down syndrome and his or her caregivers is asymmetrical; adults serving the disabled are in a dominant bargaining position. And while the dominance of the helping adult is good, it also increases the risk that the personal preferences of the disabled person could be minimized in favor of the personal preferences of the partnering adult.

Theological and Biblical Perspective

From a different point of view, the vulnerability of disabled persons such as the autistic and those with Down syndrome can be examined through Christian theology.

Vulnerability and the Theology of Work.[4]

For Christians, work and the image of God are tied. We work as co-workers with God and we work to be a blessing to others. Work in the service of others is a highly valued element in expressing the image of God. The problem is this: Where does the vulnerable or disabled person fit with the image of God? If the community around the disabled does not allow him or her to engage in productive work, are we not limiting the expression of God’s image among the most vulnerable in our community? Furthermore, God made himself vulnerable in order to serve; this is also part of the image of God that we are encouraged to emulate. It is this divine vulnerability that is one of the primary vehicles for receiving the greatest blessing possible.

If we consider that work itself is a form of worship (as some do), then keeping a disabled out of the workforce, i.e., not allowing them to worship in this way, is limiting the opportunities for such a person to worship.

Examples of Bringing the Whole Community into the Work Environment

L’Arche Communities

The work of the L’Arche communities shows us that a different point of view and plan of action are available.[5] Scores of L’Arche communities around the world welcome people with intellectual disabilities to live in the community, seeking to respond to those who are often distressed and rejected.[6] These living communities are designed around the belief that every person has something to offer others; every person can bless others. Those who are considered vulnerable and weak are part of the human community, too. This means that in order to experience what it is to be fully human, the rest of the society embraces the opportunity to serve and be served by the vulnerable.

Signs Restaurant

Signs restaurant in Toronto, Ontario provides another example of theology in action. Walk in and order your meal not by talking to the server, but by communicating in American Sign Language. Don’t know a lick of American Sign Language? No worries! Menus provide customers with guidance.[7]

The 50 servers employed at Signs are deaf. Signs restaurant is committed to helping the community by giving deaf people a way to participate in the local economy. Apparently, the community approves. Signs pulls the margins of society toward the productive core of organizations, thereby expanding the world of work for the whole community.

Sugar & Spice Extraordinary Sweet Treats

Purchase something at Sugar & Spice Extraordinary Sweet Treats bakery in Evanston, Illinois and the sales clerk who serves you may be autistic.[8] Or, one of the bakers might be autistic and one of the workers who measures ingredients might be autistic. As a customer you might not know who is who among the workers. People in Evanston know, however, the positive impact this bakery is having on the autistic workers who want, like everyone else, to be independent. But the impact does not stop there: The whole community derives benefits, aside from eating the good-tasting treats made and sold there every day.

Have Dreams

After Jean Kroll, the bakery’s owner, heard of a friend’s struggle to keep a job after college, she was inspired to help people with autism. Jean formed an alliance with the nearby Have Dreams organization by starting an internship program for the nonprofit organization’s autistic clients that trained them to be bakery workers. If you had evaluated the productivity of these workers during the first few days, you may not have been impressed. But patience, loyalty and care became three ingredients that helped the new bakery workers succeed. It wasn’t long before Jean and others saw that a business case could be made for hiring these men as paid employees.

Prospector Theater

Prospector Theater in Ridgefield, Connecticut has also worked to bring vulnerable people into the workforce. They proactively hire disabled people to sell tickets and concessions along with other tasks. Additionally, two software companies, SAP and Microsoft, have launched programs to hire workers who are autistic and are far from the only firms to do so. Special interest groups such as Autism Speaks advocate on behalf of hiring persons with autism.[9]

In the case of both Signs restaurant and the Prospector Theater, the human resource policy of inclusion of those at the margins of society also serves as a pillar of the firms’ strategic commitments. Indeed, the whole purpose of the firm is seen through the lens of reaching out to those who are vulnerable.

The Importance of Having a Job

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs motivational model, Clayton Alderfer’s ERG model (existence, relatedness, growth), the Job Characteristics Model, self-determination theory and self-identity theory have led scholars to believe that human beings innately want to achieve a level of work competence, enjoy a degree of autonomy, and fulfill their personal potential. Anecdotal evidence from individuals with autism suggests that many people with disabilities want to work. When a person utilizes their full range of knowledge, skills and abilities at work, it contributes to their positive well-being. This is also true for people with disabilities.[10]

The Depth of Vulnerability and Precarity

Meet Our Team shutterstock_288311603 smThe challenges facing disabled persons who can and want to work can be immense. Additionally, the difficulty of finding work creates a greater propensity for financial vulnerability. The depth of this vulnerability may not be readily apparent to others. The depth of vulnerability and the precarity of life for disabled citizens are evident in the following ways:[11]

  • Greater dependence upon others for economic well-being (wage support), social interaction, advocacy and protection
  • Increased likelihood of unemployment or underemployment, which impacts social status negatively
  • Hiring managers at organizations may not be aware of the needs and limitations of disabled people and how they may impact their employment at the firm
  • Social isolation may limit the ability of the disabled to learn coping strategies
  • Increased risk of discrimination
  • Legal inequalities still exist for disabled persons
  • In organizations where the drive for economic profit has risen to top priority over other social goals, the capability of a disabled person to contribute directly to profit may be lower than what managers in such organizations can tolerate.

All of these scenarios suggest that managers who wish to expand the world of work for the broader community are doing important work in helping others manage their vulnerability.

God comes into the midst of the vulnerable in a position of weakness and vulnerability. Emulating God means that vulnerability is cherished, for we are all vulnerable to one degree or another.

Vulnerability discussed in the Book of Leviticus.

One of the deepest of all human behavioral contradictions may be the desire to contribute by serving the needs of others and at the same time to desire independence from others. This is perhaps a form of interdependence. These dueling human desires are examined in Leviticus.

Holiness fuels God’s separation from sin and impurity. As with our own contrasting need for connectedness and separation, it is also holiness that fuels God’s desire to come close to us.[12] Holiness is sometimes over-simplified to refer only to sinless, moral purity, a quality that only God enjoys. It is in this context that the famous Bible verse is often quoted: “Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 NAS). Leviticus, the “holiness code” of the Bible, contains business wisdom that is relevant for our times. More than merely a list of “dos and don’ts,” the code reveals deeper principles.[13]

For example, in Leviticus 19, principles of holiness are explained in terms relevant to the ancient Hebrews, i.e., the need to protect the vulnerable:

“And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:9-10)[14]

Extracting the basic idea from the holiness laws, we can see contemporary cases where holiness exists and is easy to find. Holiness encourages us to perform works in the community that pull the margins of society toward the center of productive life.

Signs, Sugar & Spice, Have Dreams, Prospector Theater and other such community centers committed to earn profits but also to grow a flourishing community by bringing all of its members into the productive core of work life. Businesses who bring the disabled into the mainstream of economic activity are doing something powerful, something spiritual, something redemptive and something biblical.

Practical Implications

Managers interested in expanding the reach of their organization into their community will need to carefully evaluate which tasks and roles can be served by people at the margins of society. Just as when hiring any new employee, the commitments made to the marketplace and the types of tasks required to fulfill these commitments still need to guide managers in discerning where and when it is appropriate to hire anyone, including someone with disabilities. From an organizational point of view, expanding the workforce to include those with disabilities may require some restructuring of reporting relationships, how work tasks are divided, the level of detail needed to orient disabled workers and how work is coordinated.

The wage and salary scale may need to be reviewed fairly to reflect the work that is accomplished and maintain fairness for all workers. Other workers can enhance their abilities by participating in conversation about the elements of the working relationship that are appropriate for disabled people in their department. Including other employees in professional conversations and processes has the potential to boost the wisdom and managerial abilities of all concerned. More significantly, including other employees in these conversations and processes has the potential to broaden the impact in the wider community. That impact is broadened from the participation of able workers who, through participation in the kinds of conversations needed to bring the disabled into the workforce, deepen their own awareness of the good that is done (and the challenges along the way). As these able workers share their experiences with friends and family outside of work this helps the rest of the community deepen its understanding of what is taking place for the good of the community as a whole. Hiring disabled workers might also complicate matters if at a later date the company needs to downsize. Such a situation will test the Christian’s ability to be fair in the commitment to all workers.


[1] Jeffrey Pfeffer and Gerald R. Salancik, The External Control of Organizations: A Resource Dependence Perspective. Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books, 2003. An additional lens through which to see the activities of companies such as those reviewed here is “positive organizational scholarship.” See, for example, Cameron, K. S. & Spreitzer, G. M. (2012). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

[2] The view of resource dependence is on the elements internal to an organization. This is in contrast with the industrial-organizational view of competitive advantage, which emphasizes the characteristics of the environment (the industry and the market) external to the organization.

[3] The literature on environmental uncertainty and its relevance for organizations has been well developed for two generations. Cited here are examples of this literature: F. E. Emery and E. L. Trist, “The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments,” Human Relations 18(1965), 21-32; H Aldrich, Organizations and Environments (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1979).

[4] Volf, Miroslav, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1991); Jensen, David H. Responsive Labor: A Theology of Work (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); Cafferky, Michael E. Management: A Faith-based Perspective (Pearson Education, Inc., 2012).

[5] Swinton, John. “The Body of Christ has Down’s Syndrome: theological reflections on vulnerability, disability, and graceful communities.” Journal of Pastoral Theology 13, no. 2 (2003): 66-78; Nouwen, Henri. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1989).

[6] http://www.larcheusa.org/

[7] Details of the Signs restaurant experience have been reported widely in electronic media. These are two examples: http://www.businessinsider.com/toronto-signs-restaurant-and-bar-2014-8


[8] http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/evanston/ct-autism-bakery-met-20141226-story.html

[9] https://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/adult-services/autism-and-employment

[10] Konrad, Alison M., Mark E. Moore, Alison J. Doherty, Eddy SW Ng, and Katherine Breward. “Vocational status and perceived well-being of workers with disabilities.” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal 31, no. 2 (2012): 100-123.

[11] To the contributions of the following authors, I have added additional possibilities for how the depth of vulnerability can be seen. See, Satz, Ani B. “Disability, vulnerability, and the limits of antidiscrimination.” Washington Law Review 83 (2008): 513-568; McKee-Ryan, Frances, Zhaoli Song, Connie R. Wanberg, and Angelo J. Kinicki. “Psychological and physical well-being during unemployment: a meta-analytic study.” Journal of Applied Psychology 90, no. 1 (2005): 53-76.

[12] Cafferky, Michael E. Business Ethics in Biblical Perspective: A Comprehensive Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 87-89.

[13] Ross, Allen P. Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 351-367; Balentine, Samuel E. Leviticus. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002).

[14] See also Exodus 22:20-23; 23:9; Leviticus 19:14, 33-34; Deuteronomy 15:4-11; 24:14, 17; 27:19; Psalm 82:3; Isaiah 1:17, 23; 3:14-15; 5:28; 10:2; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 16:49; 18:17; 22:7, 29; Amos 8:4; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Author of the article
Michael Cafferky, DBA MDiv
Michael Cafferky, DBA MDiv, holds The Ruth McKee Chair for Entrepreneurship and Business Ethics at Southern Adventist University. Prior to this he served for twenty years in the healthcare industry in middle and senior management. He is the author of two university textbooks Management: A Faith-based Perspective (Pearson Education, Inc., 2012) and Business Ethics in Biblical Perspective: A Comprehensive Introduction (InterVarsity Press, 2015).
More articles from 2016 Volume 19 Issue 1
Related Articles