Employers learn from the disabled Workplaces being made adaptable New law will give more opportunities to the disabled.

November 04, 1991|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Evening Sun Staff

Robert Sander punches commands into a computer terminal and the multicolored diagrams, geometrical patterns and charts he has drawn flash on the screen.

Sander expects he'll be ready to begin his new drafting job with Baltimore Gas & Electric in January.

"There's no symbol I can't draw," Sander says proudly. "And you can't tell by looking at my work who did it."

One of the things that makes his work remarkable is that he is able to do it without the use of his hands. Sander, 34, of Glen Burnie, was working as a BG&E lineman two years ago when he lost both arms in an electrical accident.

A burly man with shaggy brown hair and a mustache, Sander readily shows off the drafting skills he has learned at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center. He gives the computer commands by pushing a stick with his chin.

BG&E has purchased the equipment, and Sander will take it with him to draw diagrams and maps in his new job.

"I'm looking forward to going back to work," he says.

Next year, more employers will have to make efforts to accommodate disabled workers. Employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act will go into effect July 26 for businesses with 25 or more workers. Businesses with 15 to 24 workers will have until July 1994 to comply.

Under the law:

* Employers may not discriminate against an individual with a disability in hiring or promotion if the person is otherwise qualified for the job.

* Employers can ask about one's ability to perform a job, but cannot inquire if someone has a disability or subject a person to tests that tend to screen out people with disabilities.

* Employers will need to provide "reasonable accommodation" to individuals with disabilities. This includes steps such as job restructuring and modification of equipment.

* Employers do not need to provide accommodations that impose an "undue hardship" on business operations.

Complaints against employers can be filed with the Equal

Employment Opportunity Commission or state human rights agencies. Remedies include hiring, reinstatement, back pay, and court orders to stop discrimination.

Although Maryland law already requires new and renovated buildings to be wheelchair accessible and prohibits discrimination against employees with disabilities, Marian Vessels, director of the Governor's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, says a number of Maryland companies will have to make changes when the new law goes into effect.

"When you hire a handicapped person, it usually isn't that expensive to make the site accessible," says Ernest Lareau, a rehabilitation engineer and private consultant.

He suggests employers hire a qualified person first, then work with the employee to address specific needs.

Making the workplace accessible to employees with disabilities can be profitable. Employers can qualify for up to $35,000 in tax credits for removing barriers to the disabled. Businesses are permitted to deduct 40 percent of the first $6,000 in wages given to an employee with a disability.

Although Maryland businesses are concerned about the vagueness of the law and would prefer specific definitions of "reasonable accommodation" and "undue hardship," Stuart Yael Gordon, director of industrial relations with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, says he doesn't expect the law to be unduly costly.

Companies that have made modifications to accommodate disabled workers say the changes were worth it.

KCI Technologies Inc., an architecture firm in Frederick, had to make only a few adjustments when it hired a draftsman who uses a wheelchair. The office was modern and already accessible, so the firm had only to lower some of its supplies to the employee's reach and ease the tension on a bathroom door.

Bill Brennan, technical coordinator for the firm, says the employee has "fit in very well with the group," playing basketball and street hockey during lunch breaks.

At the Aberdeen Proving Ground, more substantial physical modifications had to be made to help a disabled budget analyst. The Army installed a chair lift to raise the employee from the basement entrance to the first floor office and put in wheelchair ramps and a handicap-accessible bathroom.

The lift was paid for by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and the Proving Ground's own work crews made the bathroom renovations, so costs were minimal.

Advocates for the disabled say they do not expect employers to make unreasonable concessions to hire handicapped workers. "We're not looking for expensive solutions, but we're looking for the most common sense and easy-to-do methods," says Fred Neil, with the DVR's office of Communications and Community Relations.

A desk can be raised to accommodate a worker in a wheelchair by simply putting books or wooden blocks under the legs. A telephone amplifier to help a hearing impaired worker costs about $56. Renting a headset phone that allows a worker with cerebral palsy to enter data on a computer costs about $6 a month. Enlarging toilet facilities can cost about $500.

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