Turning passion into profit

Imagine waking up deaf tomorrow. Or blind. Or being in a car accident that paralyzes you from the waist down.

Would you consider yourself suddenly inferior to your co-workers, your boss, your spouse, your friends? Of course not. Yet this perception of the disabled as inferior permeates business. And it’s what keeps Joyce Bender on the phone and on the road, trying to change that misperception of people with disabilities.

Bender, a 2002 Pacesetter, recipient of the 1999 President’s Award and one of Pennsylvania’s 1998 50 Best Women in Business, wants regional CEOs and business owners to look at ability first.

“During the interview, if the (interviewer) is focused on the wheelchair vs. talent, that person probably won’t be hired,” Bender says, citing cost and insurance concerns as two big reasons, even though adaptive technology has come a long way and is more affordable than many companies realize.

She calls the misperception “an attitudinal barrier.”

This passionate, assertive, expressive woman is president and CEO of three companies that specialize in helping qualified disabled IT professionals find competitive employment that allows for advancement and growth.

Bender loves snow skiing, gardening, reading, hiking and fly fishing and thinks technology has leveled the playing field for people with disabilities — herself included. During a 1984 trip to the movies, she suffered a sudden grand mal seizure by the concession stand that resulted in a fractured skull, broken ear bones and, later, brain surgery. Years of “fainting spells” were misdiagnosed as flu symptoms until that date with her husband when the seizure triggered the correct diagnosis of epilepsy.

Bender Consulting employs disabled IT professionals for six to nine months while they work for a company such as Highmark. The company agrees to hire that person full-time after the trial period if his or her work is high quality. Bender’s innovative work trial solution works for both the potential employee, who receives full paid benefits and a 401(k) plan through Bender Consulting, and for the company that gets a highly qualified employee whose dedication and strong work ethic proves itself over the trial period.

In a conference room displaying an inspirational poster of the 10th anniversary celebration of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act and magazines such as TEQ, Epilepsy USA and Computerworld, Bender talked about her passion.

How has your experience influenced you as a business owner?

In every way. It means everything. I take Dilantin now, an anticonvulsive medication, and I’ve only had three seizures in the last 16 years. (After the seizure at the theater), I went back to work two months later (at Bender & Associates, an executive search firm).

The Institute of Advanced Technology called, they had people with disabilities trained as computer programmers but no one would hire them. I believed if you could show people the ability, you could get people interested in hiring. Highmark was one of the first companies to partner with me.

I believe, because I know the talent. It’s not their minds that are paralyzed. We are the only group that anyone can join at any time. If you’re born Hispanic, you’re not going to become white. But you can become disabled at any time.

We need more leaders, more CEOs that will say, “I believe in employing people with disabilities.”

What is the most challenging obstacle you’ve had to overcome since starting Bender Consulting?

The attitudinal barrier. People think if you hire someone with a disability, you’ll have a problem with production, and (employers) assume (disabled professionals) are inferior. I only hire people who are qualified to do the job, and don’t market this as a charity or humanitarian issue.

I market this as a good business solution providing people with a great attitude who want to work. There is no pity factor here; we want to be productive and accountable people.

We have been successful because of my employees. Many have won awards and been promoted because of their dedication. The only requirement I have is that they have training in technology. They don’t have to have work experience or a degree.

There are over 13 million Americans with disabilities who are unemployed, and that is what I’m trying to change. It’s sometimes easier to get a check for charity than it is to get people on the payroll.

What changes do you see happening in the Pittsburgh IT field?

Assistive technology has opened doors to many people with disabilities, but we need to do more to make people and companies more educated that accommodations aren’t that expensive — $500 on average. There are tax incentives and money available for people who hire the disabled.

I want to see more people given competitive employment opportunities and more people in leadership positions so that regional boards and groups are more reflective of the entire population.

What are your goals for the company?

We want to be in every state and make Pittsburgh known as the employable city for people with disabilities. We also want to help Canadians with disabilities get work; they have no ADA. The Royal Bank of Canada is our current partner, and we have six people on site there.

What advice do you have for local CEOs and business leaders?

Look at the ability, not the disability. (We can change the attitude barrier) by getting people into the work force and seeing what great performers they are. Bayer is a good example. They are walking the talk by hiring people.

People with disabilities want the opportunity for freedom, they want to work. The only way to buy a car, get an apartment, have freedom in this country is to have competitive employment. The (disabled) person is so appreciative and so loyal, such high dedication. There is a labor problem because of the aging population, and here is a whole labor pool that is untapped. We have a long way to go yet.

Amanda Lynch is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer.