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September 5, 2004

Law hasn't boosted disabled hiring

From: Florida Today, FL - Sept 5, 2004

Advocates say employment rate misses the point


WASHINGTON -- Twelve years after the Americans with Disabilities Act declared illegal employment discrimination against the disabled, 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've 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.

"I think I'm also interested in any sort of public interest work, pro bono type work or, as my dad says, the jobs that don't make much money," she said. "I want to help as many people as I can. My whole life everyone has always had to help me do everything that I wanted to do."

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.

"We estimated that about 44 percent of employed people with disabilities are in contingent or part-time jobs, which is about double the rate of people without disabilities," Kruse said.

He attributes the low percentage of full-time disabled workers to several problems: in addition to federal rules that cut off health benefits if a worker makes too much, employers hesitate to take on full-time disabled employees, and health problems prevent some disabled workers from working full time.

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 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 said summer internships, such as the Labor Department program in which Hunt and Singh participated, are important in developing careers.

"Perhaps they didn't as a young person maybe baby-sit, carry newspapers or stock grocery shelves," said Grizzard, who is legally blind. "So 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."


Grizzard agrees with other advocates for the disabled that progress has been made.

But no authoritative government statistics prove their case -- even though the federal government spends billions annually on programs to promote jobs for the disabled.

For example, the federal government awarded $1.4 billion in contracts in 2003 under the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Program. But the 38,000 disabled workers who benefited from these contracts received an average hourly wage of $8.77. Most were employed in services -- such as janitorial work, landscaping or back office jobs at federal facilities -- or in factory settings that produce mops, brooms, light bulbs and other products for federal buildings.

The upside of the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Program is that more than 1,300 received promotions and 1,428 of the workers found private-sector employment, but that's about 7 percent of the 38,000.

The Rehabilitation Services Administration of the Department of Education provides $2.4 billion federal grants and $600 million in state matches annually for employment through local agencies to help 255,000 people enter the work force.

"This is a get-a-good-job-and-keep-it program," said agency spokesman Troy Justesen, himself a wheelchair user.

The federal government estimates it directly employs about 120,000 disabled workers. That's a small fraction of federal workers, but the administration is trying to improve on that number through President Bush's so-called New Freedom initiative that encourages federal agencies to hire the disabled.

The government doesn't have ready figures on how many disabled workers are moving into high-paying jobs. Some advocates for the disabled single out the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Program for promoting a system in which high-paying management jobs go to people who are not disabled while the disabled are confined to dead-end jobs.

"One size doesn't fit all," Grizzard said. "When we have choices, there are those who have a comfort level working in that type of environment."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't measure joblessness among the disabled although it does break out figures for blacks, 10.9 percent in July; Hispanics, 6.8 percent; whites, 4.8 percent; and teenagers, 17.6 percent.

Grizzard said efforts are under way to calculate unemployment among the disabled, with details on gender, types of disabilities and age.

Said Blanck of the University of Iowa: "We have to remember that all people with disabilities are not created equal, however perverse that sounds. This is a very diversified group of people with varying interests and varying skills and varying abilities."

Copyright © 2004 FLORIDA TODAY.