A profession open to disabilities

Written on Mar 21, 2017

IanBurkhart

By Jessica Salerno, OSCPA content manager

As accounting continues to implement the tenets of diversity and inclusion into the profession, it’s important to remember those principles do not just apply to race or gender, but also those with differing physical and mental abilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines someone with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy, their January 2017 Disability Employment Statistics report stated that those with disabilities ages 16 years and older are 19.5% of labor force participation.

“People with disabilities choose accounting for the same reasons why people with typical abilities chose accounting,” said Lori Golden, abilities strategy leader at Ernst & Young LLP. “It’s a good career path with good longevity, income potential, ability to grow and the flexibility to do different things.”

Golden began working on a project at EY about 10 years ago to see whether people with disabilities might be an underleveraged talent pool. What she quickly discovered, however, was that many people with diverse abilities were already working in all of EY’s various service lines. She then realized that, although recruiting remained important, the project perspective needed to shift to one that promoted an inclusive environment and ensured those with disabilities received the support they needed to do their best work.

“It was a realization that we had been hiring talented people with disabilities all along,” Golden said. “But where we could do better was working to help them be as productive as possible.”

What originally started as a project has now turned into a key area of focus.

Promoting an inclusive environment

Although today firms and industries everywhere are working toward embracing these practices, diversity and inclusion hasn’t always been a priority for businesses. Nobby Lewandowksi, CPA, was fired from his first office job in 1965 because of his stutter, his manager citing Lewandowski’s inability to communicate as the main reason.

“He was confusing an ability to speak fluently with the ability to communicate,” Lewandowksi said.

Lewandowski had already worked tirelessly on his speech, but he said the firing gave him a new perspective on embracing the power of positive thinking. He later went on to open his own accounting firm with a partner, and years later sold it as the 18th largest firm in Northeastern Ohio. He was also named one of the most influential CPAs of Ohio in 2008 by The Ohio Society of CPAs.

"Disabilities are disguised challenges," Lewandowski said. "People should realize you are on earth once, so make the best of what you have and get on with your life."

“The word disability really is not in my vocabulary. Everybody has a challenge. There isn't anybody who is going to be instantly successful,” Lewandowksi said.

Anticipating hurdles and making accommodations are crucial steps in creating that inclusive environment. Golden shared a story of how EY captioned with subtitles a series of programs held around the country to be considerate of those with hearing difficulties.

“We are captioning as a way to make it seamless for anybody who might have a need and also to demonstrate to our people this is a really important priority for us,” Golden said. “And making it easy for everybody to participate is so important that we don’t need to ask who needs this, we’re doing it proactively.”

After the presentation someone with hearing difficulties approached one of the organizers to thank them for the captioning.

“It was one of the few events where he felt he could comfortably, seamlessly get every bit of information without straining,” Golden said. “He appreciated that he didn’t have to raise his hand and ask for anything special; it was already available to him.”

“In the workforce there can be this pervasive idea that hiring people with disabilities is going to slow down efficiency or take a lot of resources,” said Jasmine Mickey, manager of diversity and inclusion at The Ohio Society of CPAs. “That’s a misconception.”

Mickey encourages organizations to become inclusive from the outset, considering resources like screen readers, an accessible floor plan and how the leave plan is structured for those with emotional and mental disabilities.

“Just already having it, so if that issue comes up they’re not scrambling figuring out how to accommodate that person; they already have the infrastructure in place,” Mickey said. “I think if we can move to accommodations being more inclusive from the outset, we can open up our field a lot more.”

Establishing accessibility

Emily Pennington majored in accounting at Xavier University and was drawn to the profession as a foundation for her plan to become a tax lawyer.

“Being blind made me think a lot harder about what I wanted to do. I had to find something that I enjoyed, but which would be realistic and that would be accessible enough,” Pennington said. “Technology has gotten a lot better, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in that area. So, I wanted the accounting background, but I figured that law with the accounting degree and MBA would be something I enjoyed, something that I could reasonably find work with, and something that would have fewer accessibility limitations.

“It is always harder to find a job as a person with a disability, so I have to make sure my resume and grades look stellar and I can do what the job requires.”

Pennington, a current CPA exam candidate, who has had difficulties getting the proper accommodations to take the exam, said she hopes for further improvement in accessibility in the coming years for the profession, and thinks that accounting is becoming more accommodating. She said although she hasn’t done a ton of research, she has heard reports of the software companies’ use becoming more accessible.

Ian Burkhart, a freshman at The Ohio State University, chose accounting after he got into an accident in the summer of 2010 that left him with paralysis. He had been interested in video production.

“I always had that interest in business, but it wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to pursue originally,” he said. “But it’s something that, once I understood the depth of my injury and what my abilities are now, I couldn’t really go and do video production and be as employable as I can be as an accountant. Because I can still use a computer really well, so it’s something that I can still do completely on my own.”

What some might stereotype as a “desk job” can prove to be a liberating career path for those with disabilities. The flexibility, earning potential and sheer number of industries and jobs accounting offers is hard to beat.

After he took an interest in accounting, Burkhart helped a family friend who’s an accountant with some of her tax work to get a better sense of the responsibilities. Afterward, he knew that accounting was the path he wanted to take.

And just as importantly, he said he’s passionate about helping and serving others, and accounting allows him to do that.

“I really was drawn to it because it’s something where it’s very analytical, but at the same time it’s a really personal job where you’re working with people,” he said.

The accounting profession’s countless job opportunities make it an excellent career for any individual who is interested in deciding their own future.

“Look at it as a challenge. Say to yourself, ‘I’m going to be ethical, I’m going to be honest, I’m going to be hard working and pass the CPA exam,’” Lewandowksi said. “And I’m going to really have a burning passion to be the best that I’m able to be.”

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