Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

For 15 years, Plainview law firm Rosicki, Rosicki & Associates has been hiring people with disabilities. About 24 percent of its 500 employees are disabled, working in positions ranging from attorneys to clerical staff, says associate partner Craig Wolfson.

He was a panelist last month at a seminar at The Viscardi Center in Albertson aimed at encouraging employers to hire more workers with disabilities.

"This is a completely untapped labor pool," says Wolfson. "We wouldn't have 24 percent if they weren't incredible."

Unfounded fears. Often, employers are reluctant to hire the disabled for fear of costs to accommodate them and of potential litigation if they have to fire or discipline them.

Most of these fears are unfounded, say experts.

"I've been doing placement for over 25 years and not one of the persons I've placed in a job has sued an employer," says Mike Dolan, program manager of employment services at Abilities Inc. at The Viscardi Center, which co-hosted the seminar with human resources consultants Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates Inc. in Syosset.

Abilities helps the disabled find competitive employment and provides employers free pre-screening and other services.

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There's been an increase in employer inquiries in the last year, particularly with the new goal for federal contractors and subcontractors to have the disabled represent 7 percent of their workforce, says Dolan.

There are other hiring incentives, such as the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit for hiring individuals such as those with disabilities, he notes.

Making the right hiring decision. Use the same tactics you'd use when hiring someone without a disability. For starters, have clear job descriptions, Dolan says, including physical requirements.

"The job description should reflect the essential job functions," notes Beth Fagin, an attorney with Portnoy who spoke at the seminar. "Someone with a disability is still required to perform the essential job functions."

While the disabled may need certain accommodations to perform those functions, you should never compromise workplace standards, says Steve Hanamura, founder of Hanamura Consulting, a Beaverton, Oregon-based leadership and diversity firm. "Employers think they have to lower the standards for people with disabilities," says Hanamura, who is blind.

Paths to success. He suggests conducting a regular interview and saving any disability questions until the end. Check with someone from the employment office, state vocational rehabilitation agency or an attorney for advice on what you can and can't ask in the interview, he advises.

To start a dialogue, you might ask, "Is there anything you need on the job that will help you be successful that we haven't discussed?" says Hanamura.

Half of accommodations cost less than $50, Dolan says.

Many are free (ie., a schedule change), says Anne Hirsh, co-director of Job Accommodation Network, a service of the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, which can assist employers with questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Accommodations should not cause the employer "undue hardship," she notes, adding it's important to train management in responsibilities related to ADA.

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Job reviews. Once you've made a hire, conduct performance reviews just as you would with any employee, in case it doesn't work out.

"I've certainly had to fire my fair share of people with disabilities," says Wolfson. But "we've had significantly more positive than negative experiences."

The firm offers employees the chance to grow, says Lesly St. Louis, 28, a paralegal at Rosicki who uses a wheelchair and was a panelist at the seminar. That's a positive, he said, as "it's ten times more difficult" finding employment, because often there's a stigma.