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Preparing for a Disabled Employee

Dear PUZZLED:

Twenty percent of the U.S. population--that's 54 million people--have some sort of disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities is 70 percent. But telework arrangements can make hiring people with disabilities more feasible, and that's a plus on both sides. And there are other business benefits. AT&T, for example, estimates that telework and "virtual office" arrangements saved more than $150 million last year by increasing productivity, reducing overhead costs such as real estate, and enhancing retention and recruitment (see www.att.com/telework).

Employers shouldn't hesitate to ask employees with disabilities what equipment they need to do their work, says Rosemary Musachio, senior marketing analyst at TecAccess (www.tecaccess.net), an ADA and Section 508 compliance consultancy, 90 percent of whose employees have special needs. In most cases, the employee appreciates the employer's concern, she says. The Job Accommodation Network (www.jan.wvu.edu/) is a great place to start your search for assistive technology, she adds.

Some people with disabilities qualify for low-cost government loans to be used for telework equipment. Pennsylvania lends as much as $25,000 per person at below-market rates toward the purchase of assistive technology. (Go to www.assistive-technology4pa.org for details.) Twenty-eight other states offer similar programs (the list is at www.resna.org/AFTAP/state/index.html). What's more, your company may be eligible for a federal tax break: The Work Opportunity Tax Credit, for example, provides employers tax credits of up to $2,400 for hiring people with disabilities. The National Center on Workforce and Disability (www.onestops.info) and the federal interagency Web portal for people with disabilities (www.disabilityinfo.gov) offer many more resources.

As for your concern about appearing insensitive, the Job Accommodation Network offers tips for interacting with people with disabilities. When talking with a person who uses a wheelchair or scooter, for example, sit in a chair so you're at the same eye level. When the two of you discuss accommodations, focus on tasks that need to be performed for the job, rather than on the applicant's disability.

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