Making Your Shop Accessible to All

Aug. 1, 2019
A career expert and shop owner share how a body shop can become more accessible to workers and customers with disabilities, ultimately tapping into a workforce that is 26 percent of the U.S. population.

More than one out of every four Americans has a disability, according to the Center for Disease Control.

That’s 61 million Americans, or 26 percent of the U.S. population, that has a disability that impacts major life activities.

“It’s really an untapped pool of talent,” says Jessica Nelson, associate director of career connections at Landmark College. “But, they often face barriers entering the workplace.”

Along with his father, Carmen Paterniti and brothers, CJ Paterniti,second generation president and owner  of D&S Automotive in Mentor, Ohio, provided service for mobility systems from 1985 until recently. He and his family sold their sister company that worked on conversions and products for individuals in wheelchairs and those with various disabilities, through the company, M.C. Mobility Systems.

Paterniti and his team at the four mobility locations worked to get vans fitted for wheelchair access and fixed the mechanisms that lifted and lowered the chairs to the van. In Jan. 2019, M.C. Mobility was acquired by the largest consolidator in the industry, but he says he has continued to build up his customer base because of that venture. Today, his three collision repair shops plus his glass company, Defender Auto Glass, produce roughly $12 million in annual revenue. 

Despite moving on from that segment of the business, working on those types of vehicles allowed Paterniti to form relationships with disabled customers and gain a deeper understanding of how to provide the best service.

Fortune 500 companies, like Google, Ford and Amazon, are also tapping into the neurodivergent workforce (those having neurological variations, like those with Autism), a group that likely represents more than 10 percent of the population.  

Accommodating for people with disabilities does not have to cost businesses a significant sum, Nelson says. And, making accommodations could be as simple as making a one-time purchase of noise-cancelling headphones to help an employee concentrate, for example.

Acknowledging Those Employees 

According to Nelson, there are a lot of neurodivergent people working in businesses like collision repair shops but are not open about it. 

Shop operators should encourage those with disabilities to feel comfortable disclosing their special needs.

For example, a person that is dyslexic might not need an accommodation, per se, but might want the owner or manager to know that if he or she is given something in writing, it might take them extra time to sort through the information. 

Nelson says that shop owners should also be open with their staff if they have a disability. 

“It can cause a culture of anxiety and stress if people feel like they have to hide their disability,” Nelson notes.

Also, during the onboarding process, inquire with new employees whether or not they would like disability accommodations. Ask if there are accommodations that could help them work better, or offer a sheet that has a checkbox with yes or no so the employee can keep it confidential.

Reaching Out for Help

A business should use outside resources to help implement a culture of accommodation, Nelson says. Here are tips from the Autism @ Work Playbook.

  1. Research before starting. One useful website that lists numerous disabilities and suggested accommodations needed is Reach out to diversity and inclusion officers and form a partnership with them.
  2. Work with HR and legal representation to understand the broader context of employment. Learn from other firms that have established Autism @ Work or other neurodivergent programs.

  3. If implementing a neurodivergent program, focus on roles where there is a need to strengthen your business talent. Start small with one or two roles.

Incorporate neurodivergent strengths into the business.

Individuals on the autism spectrum tend to be extremely loyal, Nelson says. Those individuals don’t miss work often, for example. Instead, they’re likely to settle into a role at a shop and stay there long-term.

 By having people see the world differently, the workers can help with problem-solving and troubleshooting.

Nelson says it’s vital to eliminate the question, “Do you understand?” Often, employees will say they do understand when they don’t, simply because they don’t want to sound stupid. Instead, replace that question by asking, “What are you going to do first?” and follow up with, “What will you do next?”

In order to gain the best results from directions given to neurodivergent people, Nelson says leaders should give very specific and direct instructions to a task. 

Train managers to provide accommodations.

“In order to offer more accommodations for neurodivergent individuals, it’s really about raising the management practices all together,” Nelson says.

Teach managers to reflect on preferred communication styles. Not all people want to be communicated with in the same way. A manager should ask himself or herself if the employee needs something demonstrated instead of told verbally.

And, moving people around to different shop locations can be problematic. Nelson says that a neurodivergent employee should be told beforehand of the change. 

“Routine is very important,” she says. “If you just throw them into something, it’s not giving them ample time to prepare and puts their anxiety through the roof.”

Paterniti says every facility should be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA.

Common Disabilities

Percentage of adults with functional disability types:

  1. Mobility (serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs): 13.7%

  2. Cognition (difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions): 10.8%

  3. Independent living (difficulty doing errands alone): 6.8%

  4. Hearing (deafness or difficulty hearing): 5.9%

  5. Vision ( blindness or difficulty seeing): 4.6%

  6. Self-Care (difficulty dressing or bathing): 3.7%

Increase accommodations for neurodivergent customers.

When serving neurodivergent customers, Nelson says a body shop operator should consider two main things. 

First, consider the sensory experience for the customer. People with disabilities often have issues with lighting, smell and sounds.

Focus on the way the lobby is set up. Can the area be soundproofed more thoroughly? Can the harsh fluorescent lighting be replaced? What smells are wafting in from the body shop floor?

“The neurotypical brain can filter what’s going on around us, but the autistic brain, for example, doesn’t,” Nelson says. “They have a hard time getting hit by that all at once.”

Secondly, think about how the issues with the vehicle are presented to the customer. Once shop management can recognize that people receive and respond to communication in different ways, then they can approach the repair explanation differently.

One suggested process for explaining repairs to customers: reduce the amount of collision repair jargon used in conversations. Also, offer the customer a chance to either see the vehicle and walk around it, look at the photos of the car’s damage, or look at stock images in which the team member can point out where the damage is on the car. 

Ask the customer whether he or she would prefer to see what the issue is, or if they would prefer a  verbal explanation, Nelson says.

SHOP STATS: D&S Automotive   Location: Two locations in Mentor, Ohio.  Operator: CJ Paterniti  Average Monthly Car Count: 397  Staff Size: 57( 36 shop employees/ 22 office employees)  Shop Size: 40,000 square feet; 10,000 square feet; Annual Revenue;$1.2 million  

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