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Partnering with Businesses to Advance Disability Employment: A Guide for Community-Based Organizations and Workforce Development Professionals

Learn how disability and workforce development service providers can work with employers to support employment of people with disabilities.

Now more than ever, businesses are realizing that disability is a key part of workplace diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) efforts. Yet not all businesses know how to effectively recruit, hire, retain, and advance people with disabilities. 

Service providers can play an important role in this regard, by educating businesses on the benefits of a disability-inclusive workforce and connecting them with qualified disabled workers to meet their workforce needs. In addition, service providers can help workers with disabilities succeed on the job through advice on accommodations, accessibility, and other important issues.

This guide is for service providers, their networks, and partners, including disability-focused organizations, workforce development organizations and providers, and other community-based and non-profit organizations.

This guide will help you understand how to:

Meet Business Needs

Service providers should prioritize the needs of the businesses so they can effectively meet their workforce goals with qualified disabled candidates. When partnering with service providers, businesses weigh many factors. For instance, they consider if the service provider:

  • Is located within proximity to their employment sites. 
  • Serves candidates who are qualified for high-demand positions.
  • Utilizes networks of other employment service providers to expand candidate outreach.
  • Provides reasonable accommodation consultation and assistance. 
  • Provides resources for assistive technology procurement and training. 
  • Provides consistent data on applicant flows and referrals. 
  • Develops training and resources on a range of disability topics.
  • Offers a central point of contact for referrals in multiple locations, if possible.
  • Offers a diversity of job candidates with different skills and qualifications.
  • Provides support for employees’ transportation to and from work (e.g., travel training or finding carpool partners).
  • Helps employees access other employment supports, such as caregiving support.

To provide comprehensive services, providers should assess how they can help meet these needs, which likely impact other companies in regional industry clusters. These clusters are important to a region's economy and labor market. Workforce development programs, such as career and technical education (CTE) or career pathways programs, often focus on these industries. Workers with disabilities can play a vital role in staffing them.

Business-Led Initiatives: Businesses develop disability inclusion initiatives for a variety of reasons and benefit in a variety of ways. Visit the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion’s (EARN) employer profiles to learn more about different types of initiatives and how community-based partners play a role.

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Develop Partnerships

Job seekers with disabilities should have access to training and recruitment opportunities that prepare them for in-demand careers with the potential for growth and advancement. 

This can be done by developing:

  • Partnerships across systems, such as between workforce development and disability-focused agencies; and/or
  • Partnerships between businesses and service providers to maximize resources and recruitment pipelines.

Service provider partners should:

  • Establish one central point of contact for the company. 
  • Ask what the business seeks from the relationship instead of focusing on the service provider’s goals.
  • During the initial meeting, save discussion of documentation requirements or details of service funding to businesses until after discussing the main topics related to the potential partnership. 
  • Focus on what is in it for them and remember, "time equals money"! 
  • Learn about the business and industry before the initial meeting. 
  • Avoid acronyms and jargon related to service provision.
  • Develop fluency in commonly used terms for that industry. For example: If you are working with a metal fabrication company, learn about different welding methods and any certifications needed for common positions.
  • Respond to all communication from a business representative promptly (for example, within two business days). 
  • Follow through on all commitments. Do not overpromise!
  • Have honest dialogue about challenges along the way, while keeping the primary focus on providing business solutions.

For example:

Luis is the director of employment programs at an agency that serves job seekers with disabilities in an area where manufacturing jobs are in high demand. There has been a lot of growth recently among local companies. Luis wants to partner with industry employers but knows that the number of candidates he can refer for open positions might be limited. Luis contacted the director of the local American Job Center (AJC), Mary, to discuss how they can collaborate to help local manufacturing businesses identify and hire more employees with disabilities. They discussed the available resources and decided:

  • Luis can help AJC personnel identify and better serve job seekers with disabilities currently in their system who may be a good fit for these jobs. His agency can also provide on-the-job support or additional services as needed for some job candidates. His staff can work with businesses to provide training and strategies to improve disability inclusion. He can also help AJC personnel ensure they include disabled people in training and career pathway programs. 
  • Mary knows the AJC serves many people with disabilities. She also knows that many of those job seekers could succeed in high-demand industries, but often need support to be trained or get hired. She is aware that local businesses, some of which are federal contractors, have expressed interest in hiring candidates with disabilities. A partnership with Luis would increase both organizations’ value to the regional businesses. Mary is well-connected within the manufacturing industry and willing to use her contacts to initiate conversations with local businesses about hiring disabled workers.

Following this meeting:

  • Mary arranged meetings with local industry leaders and invites Luis. They discussed how, together, they can be a resource to help meet critical talent shortages. 
  • One company expressed interest in creating a pre-employment training program specifically focused on preparing people with disabilities for roles in the industry. 
  • Developing the program took time, but eventually it was so successful that other businesses within that industry also wanted to sponsor it. 
  • Candidates selected were from various agencies or schools serving job seekers with disabilities. 
  • Luis’ staff provided extra support and connected them to other services, such as vocational rehabilitation (VR), as needed. 
  • As a result of this partnership, the industry is hiring more employees with disabilities who have been trained for specific jobs.

Leading businesses have identified key principles (PDF) that can help service providers demonstrate a strong track record of building successful partnerships. These principles include:

  • Taking steps to understand the needs of the business.
  • Understanding that businesses make decisions based on their needs, not rehabilitation needs.
  • Adjusting the products and services delivered to meet businesses’ needs.

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Communicate with Businesses

To succeed, service providers need to speak to business interests. 

The list below illustrates some common "jargon" used by VR and workforce development service providers, along with more business-friendly alternatives: 


  • This term often has a different meaning for businesses, who use the term to refer to the final customer of their product. Using “consumer” to refer to a recipient of workforce development services can be confusing.
  • Use words such as "job seekers," "applicants," and "candidates" when discussing your referrals to open positions. 


  • Businesses do not "place" people into jobs. 
  • Businesses are interested in finding and developing talent. 
  • They also care about concepts like employer-candidate fit, and how the right fit between a candidate and open position can help improve both the employee’s job satisfaction and the company’s productivity.


  • Businesses do not typically define themselves primarily as an "employer." 
  • They like to be seen in all aspects of their work as they also produce products or services that are sold in the marketplace. 
  • Use words such as "organization," "company," "corporation," etc.; however, use them appropriately depending on the size and scope of the business. For instance, a government agency is not a “business,” but rather an "organization."

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Leverage Business Motivation

A variety of laws, policies, and regulations promote recruitment, hiring, retention, and advancement of people with disabilities. Providers should be knowledgeable about what these are so they can advise businesses when relevant. 

Laws, regulations, and policies that promote employment of people with disabilities include:

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Sustain Business Relationships

"Business development" focuses on creating and sustaining long-term relationships with companies to produce positive outcomes for both parties, but by singularly focusing on employment, service providers may limit opportunities to engage with businesses in many ways. For example, they may overlook strategies for supporting the company in other areas, such as providing staff training, advising about workplace accessibility, and assisting in attracting people with disabilities as customers through inclusive marketing.

The traditional model of approaching businesses to build relationships one candidate at a time is less beneficial to businesses and service providers in the long run. Look for ways to move beyond “transactional” relationships and instead find ways to build long-term, sustainable partnerships that yield better results for all parties involved. The goal should be to become a valued consultant on a range of issues, not just a recruitment source.

Below are a few examples of transactional versus sustained business engagement: [1]
Transactional Business Engagement Sustained Business Engagement
Inviting a business representative to a National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) event Co-planning an annual NDEAM event with a business
Presenting a local business with an award Including businesses in regional workforce planning groups

Service providers can assist companies in becoming disability-inclusive on a deeper level by offering services that deliver obvious employer benefits, including:

  • Providing disability awareness training.
  • Providing assistance on compliance with federal laws related to disability inclusion.
  • Consulting on accommodations.
  • Developing stay-at-work or return-to-work plans for employees with disabilities, including those who experience an injury or illness.
  • Providing job coaching and other onsite support services. 
  • Advising on accessibility, both physical and digital.
  • Assisting with applying for disability employment and accessibility-related tax incentives and wage subsidies.
  • Assisting with developing mentoring or job shadowing programs for youth with disabilities.

Service providers can connect and network with businesses by:

  • Participating in business-to-business groups focused on disability employment, such as state or local non-profit organizations. Check with the state workforce agency for a list of organizations in the area.
  • Joining other employer-focused groups, such as:
    • State or local chambers of commerce
    • Human resources (HR) organizations
    • DEIA organizations
    • Service organizations
  • Working with (or serving on) workforce development boards.
  • Collaborating with Centers for Independent Living to better serve people with disabilities.
  • Getting listed in the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs’ Employment Resource Referral Directory.
  • Partnering with local AJCs. These centers are located throughout the country and offer centralized employment and training services to help people with and without disabilities find training and jobs.

With the right information and strategies, service providers can establish and sustain relationships with businesses, expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and become a vital resource for their partners. EARN has a variety of resources that can help to create and sustain these partnerships. We encourage you to share these resources with the businesses with which you work to help them recruit, hire, retain, and advance employees with disabilities.

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  1. Unger, D. (2007). Addressing employer personnel needs and improving employment training, job placement, and retention for individuals with disabilities through public-private partnerships. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 26(1), 39.
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