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Cognitive Disabilities; A Significant Yet Unaddressed Challenge For Competitive Integration In The Workplace

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Organizations such as LEAD represent the significant commitment and determination of employers, as well as the United States government, to improve the employability and economic self-sufficiency of people with disabilities. One of the most challenged demographics is that of individuals with cognitive disabilities. This group has only recently come to the forefront of public awareness, as over 250,000 veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) (1), a particularly prevalent cognitive disability, struggle to return to the workforce.

According to a Mount Sinai Medical Center study( there are as many as 30 million individuals with TBI- related challenges in the United States2. Clearly, this is a significant segment of the population, with more new cases each year than breast cancer and HIV combined3. Looking at cognitive disabilities more broadly, with the perspective that they can result from mental illness, medicine, chronic pain, MS, stroke, or other disorders, the Cornell Status Report on Disability for 2011 identified the prevalence of cognitive disabilities among working-age adults at 4.3% of the US population4. This demographic also exhibits some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates, with only 11% working full time, and 33% living in poverty, representing the highest poverty rate of any disability subgroup4.

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For a Fortune 500 company this can mean there may be as many as 2000 employees who are dealing with some kind of cognitive impairment. Frequently these disabilities are invisible to management. The cost of failing to directly address this issue can easily exceed $34,000,000 5 annually, due to lost productivity and turnover. Furthermore, not addressing this situation increases exposure to liabilities. EEOC monetary benefits due to liability claims that were awarded to persons with cognitive disabilities have doubled over the past year, for a total cost of over $30,000,000 6.

Equally significant to both business and the government is that the aging workforce may share some of the same challenges typically manifest in individuals with cognitive disabilities. Older workers are more frequently staying on in the workforce, both within larger organizations and as freelancers, entrepreneurs, and in small businesses. Having the skills and understanding that is required to maintain these individuals in the workforce is therefore an essential factor, not only to the success of today’s businesses, but for the broader financial survivability of tomorrow’s Social Security system as well.

Although many people may think that a cognitive disability indicates an inability to perform complex work, most cognitive disabilities are related to processing issues, such as memory, difficulty tracking rapid speech, or cognitive fatigue. With technology and the right management approach these issues can often be overcome. I know of many accomplished individuals with cognitive disabilities who, through formal or informal accommodations, are engaged at all levels of employment; ranging from administrative assistants to scientific researchers, government leaders, managers, and technology experts. Individuals with cognitive disabilities bring tenacity, creativity, and a deep fund of knowledge to their work. It is therefore useful to think of cognitive disabilities as reflecting a variety of neuro-diverse thinking styles.

In work settings, persons with cognitive disabilities often misattribute or fear to disclose their challenges. Management can best deal with such situations by creating an inclusive environment where individuals can comfortably speak out or silently integrate. As an additional important benefit, creating an inclusive environment can also contribute to limiting exposure to liability, as well as boosting productivity of all employees.

People with cognitive disabilities can present a challenge to managers who do not recognize or understand the issues at hand. But, with guidance and tools, management can turn the knowledge and capabilities offered by these individuals into an invaluable corporate asset. In my next blog post, I will share with you some ways that will enable management to drive toward this outcome. CC


Madelaine Sayko is President of Cognitive Compass, a company of thought leaders dedicated to providing organizations with the skills and tools needed to improve employment outcomes for people with cognitive disabilities.

Daniel Gross, a consultant to Cognitive Compass, is a researcher in knowledge representation and management, with a passion for researching and developing novel assistive technologies for knowledge workers with cognitive disabilities.

Footnotes

[1] Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center , http://www.dvbic.org/dod-worldwide-numbers-tbi

[2] MT Sinai Medical Center http://losangeles.networkofcare.org/mh/library/article.aspx?id=2398)

[3] Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, http://www.cimit.org/fact_sheets/traumatic_brain_injury.html

[4] Erickson, W., Lee, C., & von Schrader, S. (2012). 2011 Disability Status Report: United States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Employment and Disability Institute (EDI).

[5] Assuming an average Fortune 500 company size of 50,000 employees with median salary of $50,000 and 6% employee turnover. Productivity measure based on The Gallup Organization study of employee productivity and engagement.

[6] ADA Charge Data – Monetary Benefits, FY 1997 – FY 2012, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/ada-monetary.cfm

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About the Author:

Ms. Sayko’s professional background includes several decades of executive management in technology development and healthcare systems. Ms. Sayko has helped found technology start-ups and has worked for both major corporations and as an independent contractor. Currently Ms. Sayko sits on the board of The Acquired Brain Injury Network of Pennsylvania (ABIN-Pa) and is the Community Education Coordinator for Delaware County, Pennsylvania.