Finding Disabled Workers Inclusion Under a Big Tent

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Startup recruitment firm Big Tent Jobs LLC strives to place “specially abled” employees.

Companies seeking techies call on IT recruiters. Top brass-seekers look to executive headhunters. And now, firms casting their nets for disabled candidates call Big Tent Jobs LLC, a Southfield-based placement firm for what founder Adam Kaplan dubs “specially abled” employees.

Why seek disabled candidates when able-bodied citizens are clamoring for work? Because of their unique qualifications and skills, Kaplan argues. There are 30 million employable Americans with disabilities — about one-fifth of the potential workforce — with backgrounds in finance, information technology, engineering and other desirable fields.

“There’s no good business case for keeping 20 percent of the market out of your recruitment efforts,” Kaplan said on A Wider World, a Detroit Public Television program that aired last month.

The American Association of People with Disabilities, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, released a statement in August noting the unemployment rate for people with disabilities stands at 16.8 percent, a .4 percent increase over the same period last year.

Kaplan believes that statistic masks a much higher rate, which he says is closer to 70 percent, when one factors in those who are underemployed or have given up looking for work. His unique business model fills the void.

According to the latest information released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 970,000 people with disabilities were unemployed in July 2011.

“Typically, what you see in the marketplace is a number of service agencies that support assisted employment, but there’s very little support and active recruiting for talented and college-educated people with disabilities,” he says. “This is allowing [employers] access to a pool they wouldn’t have access to; there’s a great deal of talent that’s underutilized.”

One client is Chelsea resident Bill Hintalla, who holds a master’s degree in business administration from Purdue University and is an engineer with relevant certifications, plus upper management experience. He is blind in his right eye. He’s also nearing age 64 — a “disability” people don’t talk about but that factors heavily into employability, he says.

Hintalla met Kaplan during a job search program at the Ann Arbor Institute for Independent Living, which helps people with disabilities. When Kaplan spoke to the job search group, Hintalla says, “you could see the enthusiasm. He gave a lot of people hope. Once people find out about our disabilities, they usually shun us. I’ve never met a recruiter who wanted to work with people with disabilities.”

Having lost sight in his eye six years ago, Hintalla says telling employers about his disability is difficult. “You don’t want to tell them. I’ve got all the tickets. I can handle the interview, but when it comes to taking the physical, it’s very intimidating.”

Kaplan eliminates that discomfort by informing employers up front about candidates’ special needs, which he says also benefits employers since disabilities are often hidden during the interviewing process.

“It takes that out of the equation and adds a level of comfort,” Hintalla says.

There is often a misperception that employing an individual with disabilities can be cost-prohibitive and require accommodating needs that otherwise wouldn’t be an issue.

Debunking that myth, Kaplan says that approximately half of the necessary accommodations cost companies nothing, and the average cost is $500 — a small price to pay for hiring a qualified candidate.

“The good news is that employees tend to know very well what they need, and often they have it,” he explains.

A New York City transplant, Kaplan became a disability advocate after the birth of his first child, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He and his wife, Gabriella, moved to Detroit upon his completion of graduate school in Atlanta.

He’s active in the disability community and serves on the board for the Detroit Institute for Children. Combining his passion for the disabled community with his 15 years of business experience seemed like a natural fit.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and it’s a great time to start a company in Michigan,” he says. “A lot of the inputs [rent, material costs, etc.] are lower [in a down economy]. At the same time, as companies begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, they start looking toward employment aggressively.”

Big Tent, which launched in March 2011, is still working on placing its first candidate, but Kaplan says there’s great interest from corporations, especially those set on diversifying their workplace.

Workplace diversity rings true with consumers, making it not just good karma, but good business. “Eighty-seven percent of people prefer to work with companies who’ve hired the disabled,” Kaplan says.

Hintalla says Kaplan’s professionalism, energy and enthusiasm point toward success, and while multiple headhunters are courting positions for him, he hopes it’s Kaplan who discovers the right role. “He turns over a lot of rocks. He works so much harder than anybody else.”

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