AUGUSTA — The Maine Department of Labor is highlighting the benefits of employing people with disabilities as part of this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This effort holds significance for Maine because of our status as the oldest state in the nation.

In 2012, about 206,000 people with disabilities lived in our state. The proportion of people living with a disability increases with age — our higher share of older citizens translates to a higher proportion of people with disabilities. On the other hand, our shrinking workforce means that every Mainer who wants to work should have that chance.

Our department’s Bureau of Rehabilitation Services provides vocational rehabilitation, also known as voc rehab, services to Maine residents with disabilities who want to join or return to the workforce. Vocational rehabilitation provides not only career assessment, training, job coaching and support services for people with disabilities, but also helps employers wanting to retain or hire employees who have disabilities.

Many people have misconceptions about what “disabilities” are or the types of jobs available for placement. We assist people with a range of disabling conditions, helping them function at their best in the workplace; conditions include mental illness, physical limitations, hearing loss, autism spectrum disorders, vision impairment, brain injuries and many others.Vocational rehabilitation works with all kinds of employers to identify jobs that match an individual’s skill set.

Vocational rehabilitation’s door is open to anyone with a disability who wants to work. With work comes not only pride in a job well done, but also community connections, new relationships and increased financial well-being.

Our department has a long-standing partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services to transition people receiving supportive services into jobs. This past year, we have partnered with state workers’ compensation officials to help people with disabilities resulting from workplace injuries return to meaningful employment. We also work with schools to identify career pathways for students with disabilities, transitioning them to training, education or employment.

We have helped an adult with an autism spectrum disorder obtain an information technology job with a $50,000 annual salary. We help retail chains find a reliable and steady workforce. We help people train for specific careers or start a business. We help companies retain staff who need accommodations.

In the past year, the department has helped more than 900 individuals gain employment — an 18 percent increase from last year. Since the vocational rehabilitation program eliminated its waiting list in 2010, it has increased the number of people assisted by 67 percent. Under the LePage administration, we have created two business outreach specialist positions to help businesses identify opportunities for people with disabilities, and we are making great gains.

However, we cannot place workers in jobs we don’t know about. More businesses need to educate themselves about the benefits of hiring a worker with a disability and then do it. Many employers hold a mistaken impression that hiring a person with a disability is expensive or that resources are not available to support the person once they begin working. Let me dispel these stereotypes.

Hiring or retaining workers with disabilities is an excellent investment in a company’s human assets. Research shows that people with disabilities are both loyal employees and loyal customers. These workers value the relationship and the investment a business makes in them. For the minority of workers with disabilities who need special equipment or an accommodation, 56 percent of these adaptations cost less than $600, with many costing nothing. Available tax incentives help businesses cover accessibility costs, and businesses can qualify for work opportunity tax credits for hiring people with disabilities.

Workers with disabilities can use technology in new ways that increase productivity. They also are great role models for other employees, and their presence improves employee morale. Studies by such firms as DuPont indicate that employees with disabilities are not absent any more than employees without disabilities. Hiring workers with disabilities does not increase workers’ compensation costs.

Furthermore, customers with disabilities and their families and friends represent a trillion-dollar market segment, and many Americans have indicated they prefer to patronize businesses that hire people with disabilities. Hiring workers with disabilities can help businesses tap this market, improving their bottom lines.

Turn “I can’t hire someone with a disability” into “I’m so glad I did!” by calling 1-855-ALL-HIRE or visiting Make a great investment in your workforce.

— Special to the Press Herald

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.