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September 4, 2004

Disabled making gains in jobs

From: Salt Lake Tribune, UT - Sept 4, 2004

Changing times: Overall employment for people with disabilities is unchanged, but young adults are climbing steadily in the workforce

By Brian Tumulty
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - Twelve years after the Americans with Disabilities Act declared employment discrimination against the disabled illegal, a Harris poll found the percentage of disabled adults with jobs stuck at about 35 percent.

That's nearly identical to the percentage in a 1986 Harris survey.

According to Census 2000, 33.1 million Americans, or 18.6 percent of the population ages 16 to 64 considered themselves disabled.

Critics of the ADA say the cost of compliance has made employers wary of hiring disabled workers.

However, advocates for the disabled downplay the employment participation statistic as misleading because it includes disabled adults - many of them older - unable or unwilling to work.

Linking the ADA to the employment rate among the disabled misinterprets the goal of the law. ''It gives civil rights and protection in employment, but it doesn't create jobs,'' said spokesman Brewster Thackeray of the National Organization on Disability, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Experts on the disabled say they have seen positive employment gains, many of them among young adults.

''Young people who have severe disabilities who want to work, who are capable of being accommodated, their employment rate has risen dramatically,'' said David Blanck, director of the Law, Health Policy and Disability Center at the University of Iowa College of Law.

Jessica Hunt, who was born with cerebral palsy and learned to walk in her rural Kentucky hometown with the aid of hand crutches, already has an impressive work-related and academic resume at age 22.

Among her accomplishments: earning a bachelor's degree from Centre College in Danville, Ky., winning a Fulbright Scholarship, teaching English to sixth-graders in France last year, and working as an intern at the U.S. Department of Labor this summer where she made $16 an hour.

A first-year law student at the University of Kentucky Law School in Lexington this fall, Hunt plans to specialize in disability law and help write public policy.

''That's my dream job,'' Hunt said during an interview several weeks ago at her cubicle at Labor Department headquarters.

Kumar Singh, who was born deaf and attended a special high school for the deaf in New York City, is starting his third year at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

The 21-year-old spent this summer in an $11.66-an-hour internship with a defense agency in Orlando, Fla., using his computer and technical skills to help process invoices and bills. He communicated with his supervisor using e-mail, written notes and some basic sign language.

Interviewed via e-mail, Singh said he hopes to graduate in 2006 with an associate's degree in accounting technology and eventually earn a bachelor's degree.

Many disabled adults lost the incentive to find work during the 1990s when it became easier for them to qualify for Social Security or Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, said Doug Kruse, an economics professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

''That clearly is a disincentive for employment because if you earn more than $800 a month, you lose not only your SSDI but your health coverage,'' he said.

Kruse, who became a paraplegic as a result of a car accident involving a drunken driver, has conducted research with his wife, Lisa Schur, on employment among the disabled.

A new federal program, dubbed Ticket to Work, is designed to help the disabled keep their federal health benefits when they become employed. ''But it's still being rolled out and too early for an evaluation,'' Kruse said.

This generation of young adults has benefited from special education programs or mainstreaming in regular classes in school districts that have had to comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Harris polls conducted in 1986 and earlier this year show the percentage of disabled Americans without high school diplomas has dropped significantly in the past 18 years, from 39 percent to 21 percent.

It's nearly twice the percentage of the general population that never finished high school but a marked improvement.

And a higher percentage of young adults with disabilities is attending college and becoming professionals, according to Roy Grizzard, assistant secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy.

Grizzard, who is legally blind, said summer internships, such as the Labor Department program in which Hunt and Singh participated, are important in developing careers. This gives them an opportunity learn how to show up to work on time, the appropriate dress and how to get along in a team environment and contribute to a project. Secondly, it gives them an opportunity to network, to develop a resume.''

© Copyright 2004, The Salt Lake Tribune.