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Webinar: Hiring the Disabled often a Wise Decision

You have about a 20% chance of becoming disabled at some point in your career. A 2002 National Science Foundation study indicates this is the case for scientists and engineers ( This report indicates, &l

You have about a 20% chance of becoming disabled at some point in your career. A 2002 National Science Foundation study indicates this is the case for scientists and engineers ( This report indicates, “The proportion of scientists and engineers with disabilities increases with
age. More than half became disabled at age 30 or older.”


People with disabilities are the world’s largest minority group. Perhaps because I had a grandfather who became confined to a wheelchair when in his fifties, I’ve long been sensitive to the employment problems of the disabled. And they do have employment challenges that are greater than those faced by people not disabled.

The disabled more likely to be unemployed

According to Gareth Edwards, a statistician and research associate with the American Chemical Society, ACS 2010 Chem Census survey indicated that members who “consider themselves to be a person with a disability” are more likely to be unemployed that those who do. The data he based his conclusion on are summarized in the table below:

Table 1. Employment Status of ACS Members (2010) Chem Census Survey



Do you consider yourself to be a person with a disability?




Column N %

Column N %

Column N %

Employment Status













Not Working Seeking




Not Working, Not Seeking









The unemployment rate seems to be higher (6.2%) among those who consider themselves disabled than among those who do not (3.7%). As Table 1 indicates, these numbers do not include members who are not working and not seeking work. Members who consider themselves disabled are nearly ten times more likely to fall into this category than members who do not. In addition, ACS members considering themselves disabled are more likely to be working part-time those employed part-time than those who do not. Many part-timers would like to work full-time and fall into the category of under-employed.  


Hiring strategies


Overall these numbers indicate that managers, including lab managers, are not considering a substantial number of highly skilled chemical professionals when hiring new staff members.


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 protects qualified individuals with disabilities from unlawful discrimination in the workplace. The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.


What is a reasonable accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment of a job to allow a qualified individual with a disability the same opportunity to perform the job as an individual without a disability. This may be accomplished by:

  1. Making a facility accessible
  2. Changing jobs or work schedules
  3. Modifying equipment, tools, policies or training procedures
  4. Providing qualified readers or interpreters


Making a laboratory accessible to the disabled is often less expensive than many employers estimate.  The cost of most modifications is modest. For example, for the wheelchair bound, accommodations can include lowering lab benches or work surfaces in hoods, storing more chemicals in cabinets under the laboratory bench rather than on shelves above the bench where they may be out of reach. Shelf lift systems such as used in many warehouses can also be useful. Workstations must be of a suitable height for the wheelchair bound or their height be made adjustable.


Safety equipment such as safety showers and fire extinguishers must be accessible to those in wheelchairs. Light alarms can substitute for safety alerts broadcast over loudspeakers for the deaf.


Many lab modifications for the disabled are possible. Lab managers would do well to consult with laboratory designers who specialize in designing laboratories for the disabled.


John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.