Hiring disabled can pay off for employers

Jobs: Tax breaks and training funds are among the benefits businesses reap from giving work to people with disabilities.

September 05, 1999|By Diane Stafford

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Randy Hariton's "reasonable accommodation" dangles from a cord around his neck.

Hariton, legally considered blind, sometimes peers through a small, round magnifying glass -- which he brought from home -- to read printed material.

Danny Haley, Hariton's manager at PC Plus in Lenexa, also provides a 17-inch monitor (bigger than the typical 14-inch screen) for Hariton's use. With a nose-to-the-computer-screen posture, Hariton can read what's there.

That's what it took to integrate one worker with a disability into one workplace.

"Hey, Randy can do the work. That's all that matters," Haley said.

But, nine years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed to reduce workplace barriers for persons with disabilities, many employers aren't saying the same thing. They don't have experience in the matter.

The ADA guarantees workers with disabilities the right to "reasonable accommodation" to help them perform the essential functions of their jobs.

Because of publicity about big-dollar discrimination lawsuits and expensive work site accommodations, advocates for workers with disabilities say most employers fear recruiting or hiring employees with physical or mental impairments.

Despite record low unemployment rates and high turnover among nondisabled employees, workers with disabilities continue to have a "staggering" unemployment rate, said Tony Coelho, chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, who introduced the ADA as a congressman.

The 1995 Census Bureau's Current Population Survey found that fewer than a third of the nation's 16 million working-age, noninstitutionalized persons with disabilities were employed.

In 1998, the National Organization on Disability Harris Poll found that three of 10 working-age adults with disabilities were employed full- or part-time, compared with eight of 10 persons without disabilities.

Furthermore, the Harris Poll found, three of four of the unemployed adults with disabilities said they wanted to be working.

Coelho's committee is trying to spread that word, plus this one:

The national Job Accommodation Network has found that in 20 percent of the cases in which reasonable accommodations have been made for workers with disabilities, there has been no cost to the employer. Another 60 percent of the accommodations cost less than $1,000.

According to the ADA and subsequent case law, prospective employers may ask job candidates if they require any special accommodations to perform the tasks as described. Interviewers are not to ask applicants if they have disabilities that might impair their abilities to work.

The woman who is severely deaf requires special telephones but otherwise functions in the corporate world because of her ability to read lips.

Still, workers who are deaf often report difficulty dealing with co-workers who seem to be uncomfortable with their deaf colleagues' direct gazes or who misjudge their lack of conversation as a lack of teamwork.

That's why some workers with physical or mental disabilities applaud corporate diversity training but criticize it for sometimes failing to go far enough. They say organizations also should teach nondisabled workers how to interact with persons who are sight- or hearing-impaired, use wheelchairs or have other mental or physical limitations.

Advocates contend such education might help reduce the number of ADA complaints filed against employers. Through the 1998 fiscal year, 91,000 ADA complaints had been filed.

The chasm separating skilled workers with disabilities from mainstream employers is large, but some bridges are being built.

Some organizations are expanding diversity training from a focus on race and gender. Others are reaching out to sheltered workshops and schools to find trained or trainable staff members.

A Kansas City example that has earned national acclaim is the integration of people referred from IBS Industries Inc., a sheltered workshop, to a General Services Administration requisition office. Workers there have won productivity and accuracy awards for their data entry.

Another bridge was crafted by Alternative Resources Corp.'s REACH program. ARC is a nationwide staffing services company that specializes in technology-related jobs. Its REACH program places persons with disabilities into technical-job openings posted by ARC's clients.

ARC's REACH program is what brought Randy Hariton to PC Plus. The staffing service was prepared to provide any accommodation that might be needed, though in Hariton's case none was.

David Grant, ARC's project support specialist in Kansas City, said the staffing service works with area vocational rehabilitation groups and government offices to identify people for work force mainstreaming.

"A lot of businesses fear the ADA and getting into trouble," Grant said. "Knowledge is the key."

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