Maxine Pegors hears it time and again from companies: When they open their doors to disabled workers, many are pleasantly surprised by the employees' enthusiasm, dedication and drive. It's a message she tries to spread throughout the year, but Pegors delivers it with renewed focus in October during National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

"One of the things that's really true about people with disabilities is that when they have a job, they are so highly motivated and have very low absenteeism and turnover," said Pegors, citing studies that track attendance records comparing disabled employees to the general workforce.

"They increase people's morale and instill a sense of positivity among all the employees. They are so excited to have the job and they have this big smile, so everybody around them gets this smile, too."

A human resources consultant and owner of Engagement HR Services, Pegors also co-chairs Bloomington's Committee on Disability Employment and Awareness. The committee, part of the city's Human Rights Commission, plans seminars and workshops on issues related to employment for the disabled. It also reaches out to businesses to tout the benefits of hiring employees with disabilities, and it presents an annual award to two businesses that excel at employing workers with disabilities.

When talking with employers, committee members aim to debunk assumptions that it's difficult and expensive to make accommodations for disabled employees. They highlight Job Accommodation Network statistics that more than half of modifications cost nothing, while most employers report financial benefits from providing accommodations, such as reduced insurance costs and improved worker productivity.

"We try to make employers aware that they might be missing some very good candidates if they aren't attracting people with disabilities," Pegors said. "It's an untapped part of the workforce that people need to know about."

In the United States, 54 million people have a legally qualifying disability, making up 19 percent of the non-institutionalized civilian population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition to facing physical and psychological challenges, disabled people also are far more likely to be unemployed. In August, the national unemployment rate for people without disabilities was 9.3 percent while the rate for people with disabilities was 15.6 percent, reports the federal Bureau of Labor.

To recognize the struggles and achievements of employees with disabilities, Congress in 1945 made the first week of October "National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week." The sentiment remained but the title changed over the years until 1988, when Congress extended the recognition to all of October and renamed it National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year's theme, "Talent Has No Boundaries: Workforce Diversity Includes Workers with Disabilities," was played out in numerous local events, including workshops on résumé writing and interviewing, job-seeking skills and self-advocacy.

Bloomington will culminate its programming on Thursday, Oct. 28 at 10 a.m. when Bob Peters, former Human Rights Commissioner in Bloomington, speaks at the Bloomington Civic Plaza about his disability and experiences in the workforce.