New course emphasizes needs of workers with disabilities

By Jessica Buterbaugh
April 30, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — We are all temporarily-abled. That is the message Wendy Coduti wants her students to take with them when they leave her RHS 410: Employment Strategies for People with Disabilities course.

A former private vocational rehabilitation and human resources professional, Coduti is now an assistant professor of education (rehabilitation and human services) at Penn State whose research focuses on employment and disability.

"When I worked in private rehab and human resources, I worked with people with disabilities and helped them find employment," she said. "When I went into academia, I often found myself thinking 'man, if HR only knew this,' and 'if service providers only knew this.' It got me thinking that there is a real disconnect between the two fields of human resources and rehabilitation and we are not adequately preparing students for how to work with people with disabilities."

Wendy Coduti

Wendy Coduti, assistant professor of education (rehabilitation and human services), addresses colleagues at the 2018 Harkin International Disability Employment Summit.

IMAGE: The Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement

But now Coduti is changing that. She has cross-listed her course with the School of Labor and Employment Relations (LER 410) so that she can reach students going into the human resources industry as well as students enrolled in rehabilitation and human services (RHS). The class also is required for all students enrolled in the RHS minor and is available to master's students in the Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling program.  

It's important, Coduti said, that she reaches as many students as possible.

"It's about expanding awareness for workers with disabilities and recognizing that disability is a part of workplace diversity. At some point in our lives, we all face a disability that requires accommodations," she said.

A national issue

According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 19 percent of individuals with a disability are employed while those without a disability have a 65.9-percent employment rate. Although the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) of 1990 aimed to increase employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities, Coduti said that rates have remained consistently low throughout the years.

"It's about expanding awareness for workers with disabilities and recognizing that disability is a part of workplace diversity. At some point in our lives, we all face a disability that requires accommodations."

— Wendy Coduti, assistant professor of education (rehabilitation and human services)

"There is a huge gap between the rate of employment for individuals with and without disabilities, and it's not because people with disabilities don't want to work or can't work," she said. "There is a lot of stigma around what people with disabilities can do or cannot do, or how they are supported in the workplace."

For example, Coduti said, many employers believe that employing individuals with disabilities will cost them more. However, research shows that when companies hire individuals with disabilities, it influences their consumer base and can actually increase profits.

"When I was in private vocational rehab, what I experienced was that when I was knocking on the door of an employer to ask if they could help hire a person with a disability, there was a lot of apprehension because they are an unknown commodity," Coduti said. "If you help employers identify ways to support their own employees through policies, healthcare and other mechanisms, and get them comfortable with taking care of their current employees who have a disability, then it is much easier for them to hire a new employee with a disability because they have that knowledge and experience."

That can be difficult because one of the many stigmas about disabilities is that if you don't see it, it's not there.

"A lot of times employers think that they don't have employees with disabilities because they're thinking only of things they can see," Coduti said. "But about 25 percent of the population has a diagnosable mental health condition, so of everyone walking through their door, one in four has a disability."

Recognizing those "invisible" disabilities is key in order for employers to provide a supportive work culture, she said, and if RHS and human resources students do not understand the challenges that people with disabilities face, things will never change.

A unique perspective

Coduti knew that in order to address this growing issue in America, she would need to partner with LER in order to reach the right student audience.

"They were really forward-thinking in saying that their students need this type of course offering and so they were 100-percent supportive," she said of the LER department. "Each semester, I have 15 of 30 seats reserved for LER students."

One of those students is junior Josh Fields, who enrolled in the course in fall 2018.

"Going in to human resources and employment, one of the things I want to do is diversify how companies hire people, and Dr. Coduti's class talks about how to help people with disabilities get jobs that they typically wouldn't get," Fields said. "I've been involved with the disability community for a while and I thought this class would not only be interesting but also help me to help that community better."

In 2015, while he was still in high school, Fields and a friend started The Next Step (TNS), a nonprofit in his hometown of Jamison, Pennsylvania, that advocates and provides educational and advocacy opportunities for individuals with disabilities who are transitioning out of high school.

"It's easy to advocate for and say we need more opportunities for people with disabilities or we need to educate people more, but when somebody with a disability actually talks about their life and how their life has been challenged, it really makes you stop and think."

— Josh Fields, junior studying labor and employment relations

"That transition period after high school is incredibly tough for people with disabilities," Fields said. "What we're doing at TNS is we're advocating and educating people through workshops, and a lot of the workshops I develop, I'm using material from this course."

Part of TNS' mission is to make a societal change and normalize the idea and practice of hiring people with disabilities, Fields said. Its mission and the content of Coduti's course aligned perfectly. Every aspect of the course has been beneficial, he said, especially the guest speakers.

"I try to bring in folks who are directly involved in working with people with disabilities," Coduti said. "I have people from insurance companies who are actually working with employees who may be on short- or long-term disability leave, worker's comp, etc. I try to get the people who are doing the vocational rehab within insurance companies who are helping people get back to work."

One of those speakers is Rachel Wesley, clinical manager of medical and vocational case management in the Clinical Department at Hartford Insurance, who said that when speaking to Coduti's students, she always tries to focus on the importance of communication between human resource professionals and their clients.

"As clinicians we are helping individuals regain physical, mental, vocational and emotional well-being," Wesley said. "We focus on what the claimant 'can do' and help them to identify and move through the barriers they might have that are interfering with or delaying their recovery."

Coduti's class also focuses on the lives of people living with a disability and how they have been impacted. This aspect of the class is important, she said, because it is a perspective that human resources professionals rarely get to see. But when they do, it leaves a lasting impression. Just ask Fields.

"We had a speaker come in who never had any issues and had everything going for him, and then he developed a disability and everything changed," recalled Fields, who is now working with Coduti on her new WorkLink program. "He told us about how difficult it was for him to acclimate to his disability in a world that is not universally accepting of people with disabilities."

Fields called the experience "eye opening," even for somebody like him who has worked with individuals with disabilities for a number of years.

"You don't think about how disability effects somebody's entire family," he said. "It's easy to just think that it is one person who is effected but that's simply not true. It's easy to advocate for and say we need more opportunities for people with disabilities or we need to educate people more, but when somebody with a disability actually talks about their life and how their life has been challenged, it really makes you stop and think."

Only at Penn State

Currently, no other classes at the University offer this unique approach to employment and disabilities. In fact, according to Joseph Jones, executive director of the Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement, Coduti's class is unique to higher education.

"I've never encountered this approach before and I think it is a very smart strategy that will reap long-term positive effects," Jones said.

"[Students] are the ones who are going to change that 19 percent to 25 percent to 30 percent and so forth, and that's what I tell my students when they leave here. I tell them the only thing they need to do is go change the world."

— Wendy Coduti

It's so smart, that when he saw Coduti presenting about the class at a national conference, he immediately invited her to speak at the Harkin International Disability Employment Summit, an annual event where select stakeholders, including policymakers and employers, are invited to share successful strategies for employing people with all types of disabilities.

"Speaking at the Harkin Summit is the pinnacle of my career," Coduti said. "I've been working on this approach for a long time and being able to connect with a lot of different people who also are working on this, it's like finding the people who talk your language. You don't get that very often so when you do, it's really exciting."

Coduti's class also is better preparing students for their professional careers.

"When I was in graduate school at Penn State," Wesley said, "I was not aware of career opportunities with insurance companies. We were only given information about working in state and city agencies and nonprofit organizations. I had no idea what workers compensation and disability benefits were or how I could impact them as a professional. This alone sets this class apart from other program offerings."

That is a real issue that Coduti recognizes and hopes her class will help to change.

"There is no degree for this type of work even though a large number of workers have disabilities," she said. "There's no disability management degree — you take a class or two. If you work in HR, you get in the field and you end up, through multiple paths, maybe working with disability leave issues and managing caseloads, but there is no formal education for it. This class is a way to help bridge that gap."

Coduti's approach, Jones said, will go a long way to furthering full inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace. That is exactly what Coduti hopes will happen.

"It is great to take all of this information that I have through my personal experiences, research and through what the best practices are, and put that in a format to reach these students and educate them that disability is OK and is a part of life, and this is what they can do to support people with disabilities," Coduti said. "They are the ones who are going to change that 19 percent to 25 percent to 30 percent and so forth, and that's what I tell my students when they leave here. I tell them the only thing they need to do is go change the world."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 21, 2019