For the Disabled, It's Always a Depression


By Suzanne Robitaille Having a disability means rolling with the punches even in good times, but a recession packs a real one-two wallop. A weaker job market makes it more difficult for disabled workers to score work, even with laws that are supposed to protect them against discrimination. Plus, those with disabilities appear to be the first group to be displaced in bad times, says Ed Yelin, a health-policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who studies labor-force trends. Says Yelin: "Employment may have worsened [during this recession] for persons with disabilities."

It's tough to prove anything underhanded is going on. The 5.4% U.S. unemployment rate lends credence to employers' claims that they're just being more meticulous in their hiring practices. But statistics show that disabled workers experience greater job losses when the economy clams up. According to the latest Census Bureau data, two out of three disabled people capable of working are unemployed, making the disabled the demographic group with the highest unemployment rate.

Statistics also show companies' hiring of workers with disabilities is more closely tied to economic expansions and contractions than their recruitment of the able-bodied. When times are good, the disabled can at least get in the door. When times are bad, forget it.

"EVERY EXCUSE." Those with disabilities -- especially severe disabilities -- are more restricted in their choice of occupations, less likely to work full-time, and more likely to be found in lower-paying occupations than their nondisabled counterparts.

Granted, it's the nature of Corporate America to try to maintain the same speed with fewer horses when riding out a recession. With businesses under pressure to cut costs, a company might close a facility or simply pack up and move altogether. For those with severe physical disabilities -- people for whom the mere act of getting to work each day is often the greatest challenge -- such relocations could determine whether they remain part of the workforce, says Francine Tishman, executive director of the National Business & Disability Council.

John Poirer, a 49-year old paraplegic pharmacist living in San Diego, says his last job was a temporary stint at a mail-order prescription outfit during the dot-com boom. Since then, he has been unable to find work. He interviewed in November for a job but left in frustration after being quizzed about the amount of sick leave he took -- questions that are illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). "Employers have used every excuse in the book not to hire me," Poirer says. Now, in the current recession, he says "it's doubtful that I'll be able to regain employment, either part-time or full-time, as a pharmacist."

COSTS OF ACCOMMODATION. The perceived costs associated with hiring the disabled also can be a barrier to gainful employment, especially when employers are trying to pack everything into a tighter budget. Imagine a wheelchair candidate going for a job interview, while the interviewer mentally calculates costs (plus work disruptions) that would be involved in installing wider spaces between desks.

Most candidates ask for at least a few modifications under the terms of the ADA, which requires that employers provide "reasonable accommodations," such as wheelchair access. A blind person working at a bank would need assistive technology -- an audio "money reader," for example, like BryTech's NoteTeller, which recites denominations and also is available with a vibrating option for the deaf-blind.

The majority of employers, however, say accommodation costs are quite slim, usually under $100. A money reader like NoteTeller costs around $300, a price offset by the goodwill that diversity generates and that indirectly boosts a company's bottom line, says Jennifer Sheehy, a senior policy adviser on the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities. As San Diego's Poirer points out, however, persuading employers to make reasonable accommodations isn't an easy task, and it can spark resentment among other employees.

All things considered, workers' primary concern -- disabled or able-bodied -- is "Show me the money." Full-time disabled workers took home a mean of $33,186 in 1999, while those without a work disability pulled down a mean of $40,889 in salary, according to Census data.

Not only do the disabled get paid less, there comes a point at which they might think twice about working at all. Disabled people who collect welfare or supplemental Social Security insurance (SSI) often have equal, or slightly higher, incomes than if they rose early each morning to work at a menial or mind-numbing job.

BRIDGING THE DIVIDE. There are a few beacons of hope, such as the Workers Incentives Improvement Act, which encourages states to change Medicaid laws so that the disabled can keep benefits after entering the workforce. The National Business Council recently received grants from Motorola and Bowne Business Solutions to launch Project Re-Employ, which will help New Yorkers with disabilities get back to work after the economic dislocation following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"Companies want to be diverse so that more consumers will buy their product or services. In order to be a better business, they need to be aware of how to interface with people of all types of disabilities," the National Business Council's Tishman says.

Other ideas that might encourage employment expansion during recession are more tax credits for businesses that promote diversity, training seminars for employers, better transportation services to and from work, and advances in assistive technology to help erase the divide between the can and cannot.

So if all these barriers went away, would we see blind people employed as bank tellers? Not without the right qualifications, of course, but a core perception still needs to change. As Tishman says: "Hiring a person with a disability is the same as hiring someone without a disability."

Being protected under the ADA won't get this hearing-impaired reporter a corner-office post, even if I bring my own equipment. But hey boss, I'm not looking elsewhere either -- especially in this recession. Robitaille covers assistive technology for BusinessWeek Online


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