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Overcoming barriers: Professor's research delves into identifying issues, improving job outlook for those with disabilities

Overcoming barriers: Professor’s research delves into identifying issues, improving job outlook for those with disabilities

Karen Markel
Dr. Karen Markel is leading research to understand the unique employment barriers for those with disabilities.

Karen Markel understands that for adults with disabilities, finding their niche in the workplace is often tricky – and she’s actively seeking answers to help this population of job seekers.

“My goal is to help businesses see that it’s possible to create environments where people with disabilities can succeed at securing and keeping jobs,” says Markel, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Business Administration and chair of its Department of Management and Marketing.

Markel has been leading OU research on understanding the unique employment barriers for those with disabilities.

In the U.S., one out of five adults has a disability. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, many social barriers have been reduced or removed for those with disabilities. But when it comes to employment, there’s a lot more work to be done.

Sobering statistics

According to a recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.5% of those with a disability were employed in 2015, while 65% of those without disabilities were. In addition, 32% of workers with a disability were employed part time, compared with 18% for those without a disability.

Primarily teaching human resources courses at OU, Markel’s research offers clarity about HR practices that can make a difference. She parlays her research findings into the classroom.

“It’s important to discuss what’s contributing to limiting employment opportunities for those with disabilities,” Markel says. “Something can occur before someone can even secure an interview, such as difficulty with online job applications, where the technology may be inaccessible. Providing paper applications is one example of a simple, low-cost solution.”

Accommodations typically don’t cost much, according to a study done by the Job Accommodation Network, a service of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. Employers reported there was no cost involved in most accommodations (58%); any cost incurred was typically no more than $500.

“When employers realize a few small, doable changes are positive for the entire workplace, it opens up new possibilities,” Markel says.

A barrier to employment can be physical, such as a doorway too narrow for a wheelchair. But there can also be attitudinal barriers, for instance, fear of hiring those with disabilities not as well understood, such as developmental disabilities. While serving on OU’s Autism Council, Markel developed an interest in researching employment issues for those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), a neurodevelopmental disability marked by varying degrees of social, communication and behavioral challenges.

Advocate for progress

Markel began work last March on a comparative case study, “Business Models of Organizations Designed to Improve the Employment Outcomes of People with Disabilities.” She’s gathering and analyzing data from a groundbreaking OU business venture employing those with ASD:

Using qualitative data, Markel is examining OU’s Extraordinary Ventures Michigan (EVM), which began in 2014 as a collaborative effort between three nonprofit organizations: Oakland University/Smiles for Children, Autism Alliance of Michigan and the Judson Center. Markel’s research encompasses learning how the collaborators establish and staff competitive microbusinesses designed around employment and community engagement for people with ASD. Paid and trained, employees are mentored by students within OU’s SBA and faculty autism experts. Housed within business accelerator OU INC, the first microbusiness (a mammography gown laundry service for an area hospital) branched off to two other microbusinesses. Markel will publish information on this venture in conjunction with the Oakland business school’s Management and Marketing Department colleagues Jae Kang and Lizabeth Barclay.

Markel is conducting a multi-case study of EVM and two other organizations designed to address the unemployment of people with disabilities. She’s gathering qualitative and quantitative research to compare the purposes and missions of the organizations, their structures, cultures, stakeholder engagement (particularly of organizational boards and parents or guardians) and general operations.

Statistics indicate that 90% of those with ASD are unemployed or underemployed, and Markel realized business management literature lacks data on workplace recruitment and management of those with ASD. Markel and MBA candidate Brittany Elia teamed up to write an article summarizing the literature available on employment of those with ASD and to offer recommendations on how to support them in the workplace.

With October being National Disability Employment Awareness Month, emphasis will be placed on celebrating the contributions of American workers with disabilities – and educating the public about disability employment issues.

When the awareness month ends, Markel will still be working to increase understanding.

“Workers with disabilities tend to be exceedingly loyal to their employers because they’re grateful for the chances they’re given,” Markel says. “Loyalty has a positive impact on work productivity and turnover.”