Belo Cipriani runs Oleb Media, a small disability accessibility testing company that helps companies make sure their products and services meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Cipriani himself is blind and some of his five employees also identify as having disabilities. But Cipriani has been struggling to find a way to finance several technological and equipment upgrades he needed for his employees and him to function at their maximum productivity.
“I am a person with a disability,” Cipriani said. “I know how expensive some of these technologies and services can be.”
After a couple years of worry, he found those funds this fall via the state of Minnesota’s new Employer Reasonable Accommodation Fund (ERAF), a pot of money allocated by the Legislature this year to help small- and medium-sized businesses out by reimbursing them for the cost of making accommodations to employ people with disabilities.
The fund, part of a two-year pilot project, allows those businesses to apply for reimbursement of up to $30,000 each year for costs related to making their workplace accessible.
“As a small business when you’re having anything custom made you end up with the risk of running up a big bill you’re not sure how quickly you’re going to be able to pay,” Cipriani said. “Knowing no matter how much this would cost we would be reimbursed was such as relief.”
The case for assistance
Cipriani began his career in Silicon Valley as a UNIX systems administrator and he quickly built a reputation for building successful IT teams. He placed engineers at large companies such as Google, Apple and eBay.
His career was sidetracked when he lost his sight after being assaulted in 2007. He relocated to Minneapolis in 2016 to be near family and has been working with companies to help make sure their websites, apps and content meet federal and state access requirements.
He’d been searching for grants and other available funds to help offset the cost of the equipment for a couple years, not wanting to take on a large debt after his business changed during the pandemic. And Cipriani said he’s been on both sides – as the employer trying to look out for his employees and as an employee and job seeker, afraid to ask for accommodations or upgrades necessary to maximize his performance.
“I felt like I could jeopardize my employment,” he said. “That’s a very common feeling. It’s uncomfortable bringing that conversation to your employer.”
Cipriani is not alone. Minnesotans with disabilities age 16 and older make up just under 13% of the state’s population, but only 5.8% of the employed population, notes Oriane Casale, assistant director of the Labor Market Information Office at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), in a recent report.
And, while the state’s unemployment rate for people with no disabilities was 3.7% in September, it was 9.8% for people with disabilities, according to the report.
“People with disabilities face many obstacles to working,” Casale wrote in her report. “Finding suitable work, convincing employers of their value as employees during the hiring process, commuting and transportation are all significant barriers.
“In addition, obtaining the accommodations needed to perform their jobs, whether that is personal care assistance, job coaches, accessibility software and hardware or simply accessible facilities, can prove insurmountable for many people.”
ERAF aims to level the playing field on at least the latter count. Passed during the most recent legislative session, the two-year pilot program received $2 million for each of the next two years. The program is being administered through DEED’s State Services for the Blind program. It fulfills a long-time goal of that program’s director, Natasha Jerde.
“This has been something we have been talking about several years,” she said. “It was part of a dream of what could we do for employers that would also help people with disabilities.”
While funds for ERAF became available July 1, it has taken a couple months to find a program director. That person started recently and one of the main goals will be outreach to the small business community to educate them on the availability of the funds.
The program will reimburse up to $15,000 for a one-time accommodation, such as installing a wheelchair ramp or adding specific lighting, or an unlimited amount up to the cap for recurring expenses such as hiring an interpreter or captioning service.
“They can submit as many times as they want,” Jerde said.
Funds are first-come, first-serve. Program officials will track expenditures and report back to lawmakers.
“We are hoping we can go to the Legislature showing that there is a need for this,” she said, adding that one of the goals is showing many of the accommodations necessary for hiring people with disabilities cost less than believed. “There is a common perception that hiring someone with a disability is expensive. It’s not the case at all by any means. We do know that putting in reasonable accommodations can be costly for a small business that does not have a lot of resources.”
At least eight employers have applied for reimbursement. Some applications still are being reviewed. Not all have met the requirements. Jerde said the agency is reaching out to those that did not to ask about their goals.
“Our whole goal is to make this application as easy as possible,” Jerde said. “We’re not connecting a ton of forms or documents. We will be auditing throughout the year to make sure we aren’t using the money inappropriately but we want it to be easy for employers to apply.”
To apply for reimbursement through the program, go here.