January 10, 2003
Job tools expand for disabled
From: Sacramento Bee, CA - 10 Jan 2003
Sophisticated devices can minimize work handicaps, but employers' resistance is a big problem
By Melanie Payne -- Bee Staff Writer
Glenn Higgins lay in the hospital after an accident that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down at age 17. His doctor told him how lucky it was that he was young.
Higgins recalled thinking: "That's an odd thing for him to say."
Now 54, he said he understands the remark. Becoming paralyzed at a young age, Higgins said, he learned to be flexible, innovative and adaptable.
"The whole idea that once you have an impairment you're down and out and to the sidelines, never in the work force -- that whole idea is disappearing from the culture," Higgins said.
Much of the credit for this changing attitude goes to "assistive" technology that allows people with disabilities to work and retrieve information in alternative ways.
Yet all this sophisticated gadgetry hasn't overcome the problem of severe unemployment among people with disabilities.
Products such as speech synthesizers can unlock texts for people who because of a disability can't read. Speech recognition programs allow people with limited movement to turn dictation into text. Closed-captioning allows people who are deaf to read what they can't hear.
Still, nearly 57 percent of working-age people with disabilities don't work, according to 2000 census data, the most recent figures available. That amounts to about 17.3 million individuals between the ages of 21 and 64.
Among certain segments of the disabled population, the blind for instance, unemployment rates run as high as 70 percent.
Turning these figures around won't come from better technology, experts contend, but from a shift in attitude among employers and disabled people.
Employers often assume that the technology is expensive, said LaDeana Huyler, program manager for Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash., but even costly adaptations such as a $1,200 one-hand keyboard are cost effective in the long run if they mean gaining or retaining a productive employee.
"A lot of business managers don't know about accessible technology and how it can empower a work force," said Huyler, co-author of Microsoft's "Accessible Technology in Today's Business: Case Studies for Success."
Microsoft has been developing "assistive" technology for 14 years, Huyler said, but many still don't know what's available.
Personnel recruiter Farren Hatch, who works at Wells Fargo's Sacramento phone bank, has become a true believer in the power of such technology after hiring several visually impaired workers last year.
"Anything is possible to me now," Hatch said. "The technology is amazing. I think the opportunities for (people with disabilities) are endless."
Awareness is growing, but there's still a big gap, said Mary Lester, the executive director of the Alliance for Technology Access in San Rafael.
"The biggest barrier people with disabilities face on every level is attitudinal barriers," Lester said. "People are afraid of the cost, being sued, catching things. I'm stunned and amazed at people's lack of understanding of disabilities."
Bryan Bashin, executive director of the Sacramento Society for the Blind, echoed this sentiment.
"Unemployment among the working-age blind is due only in some part to technical obstacles," Bashin said. "Mostly, it has to do with misconceptions with employers and misconceptions with the blind themselves on how to get the work done.
"It's their attitude about work and themselves that is the key."
The theory resonates with Sacramento chiropractor Paul Peterson, who attributes his success to his determination, not technology.
Peterson, who is blind, graduated valedictorian of his class at Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa. He serves on the college's board of trustees.
He uses a computer scanner that synthesizes printed material into speech. But he said: "I don't use it for work. I use it at home to keep up on some scientific research and e-mail."
Peterson, 58, acknowledged that technology has opened up the doors for 30.6 million working-age individuals who have some disability. But he added that specialized equipment is not essential for doing every type of work.
Lynette Francis, an accountant with the county of Sacramento, credits both technology and her own tenacity with enabling her to keep working after she lost her sight two years ago.
"I figured I was done," Francis recalled thinking when she first lost her sight. "Who will ever hire a blind person?"
But with five children and a house she didn't want to lose, Francis said she had to get back to work. She spent a year on Social Security disability and during that time learned cane travel skills and how to use technology.
She now has a good job with hope of a promotion, she said.
Keith Lothridge hopes that changing his attitude, as Francis did, will help him find a job.
"I was in denial of my visual disability," said the 40-year-old Lothridge, who has been left legally blind by a retinal disease.
Instead of telling an employer that he needed a device such as a magnifier to read small print and labels, Lothridge said he struggled in a dimly lit warehouse where he couldn't see what he was doing.
His employer labeled him unproductive and dismissed him, he explained.
Now that Lothridge knows technology can help him with stocking shelves or doing janitorial work, he expressed confidence that he can explain his disability to potential employers and how he can work around it.
Lothridge, Francis and other individuals disabled in midlife often pose the greatest challenge for placement, said Catherine Kelly Baird, executive director of the California Governor's Committee for Employment of Disabled Persons.
"The technological changes over the last five years have made so many jobs doable by people with disabilities," Baird said. The goal of her agency is to get people to realize that.
Even though the technology exists, it's by no means perfect, and it takes perseverance and flexibility to make technology work on a job.
It's not a magic bullet, as attorney Jeff Thom can attest.
Technology has allowed Thom, who is blind, to work faster and independently, and the technology is improving all the time, he said.
But screen readers can't easily decipher certain documents -- portable document format (PDF) files or rich text files, for instance, Thom said.
When difficulties arise, however, Thom said, disabled employees have to step up and take responsibility. Employers can't know what's out there, he said, nor the difficulties in using it. It's up to the disabled employees to educate employers and work with them, he said.
Higgins, a vice president and director of psychology and neuropsychology at UnumProvident Corp. in Portland, Maine, said people with disabilities are discovering they can pursue careers.
"As that happens, people are expecting more of themselves and of other people," he said. "Generally that's a positive thing. People aren't sitting home feeling as if they can't do anything."
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