Long Road to Freedom

In Features, Opinion, Reaching A Higher Level by Damian P. Gregory

Second of a two-part series

At 5:15 on a Friday afternoon, Alan Reich, the President and Founder of the Washington DC-based advocacy group, the National Organization on Disability (NOD), knows how lucky he is to be living in this time.

Reich, a wheelchair user since 1962, is a strong proponent of using technology to assist people with disabilities in the workforce.

“You have to be able to keep up with the times and learn how to use some of the technology,” Reich said. “There are so many things available now.”

Learning about assistive technology is just one way people with disabilities can give themselves a competitive edge in the workplace. But, training and assistive technology are only two small pieces of the larger, employment jig-saw puzzle for people with disabilities.

Finding an employer who is willing and able to look beyond a disability, to see a person’s ability, is a great challenge for qualified people with disabilities hoping to be part of the workforce.

“Social attitudes have to change toward people with disabilities. Everyone still has perceptions about what it means to be a person with a disability,” said Susan Odiseos, the executive director of New York-based, Just One Break, Inc., one of the oldest job placement agencies for people with disabilities in the United States.

“We are leading employers to qualified applicants, we are not asking for charity or for an employer to give someone a paycheck.”

But getting employers to understand the benefits of hiring someone, even a qualified person with a disability, is a slow and involved process. One of the main reasons is that employers believe that hiring a person with a disability will mean having to spend more hours supervising or helping the employee, experts say, leading to less productivity and affecting the company’s overall bottom line.

Educating employers, particularly those in the private sector, about hiring people with disabilities, is one of the major goals of W. Roy Grizzard, who heads the Office of Disability Employment Policy in Washington, D.C.

“We realize that government doesn’t create most jobs,” he said. “The private sector does.”

With that in mind, Grizzard’s office has embarked on an aggressive outreach campaign to smaller businesses. It is estimated that 97 percent of the workforce in the US is made up of companies which hire 250, or less, people.

“We hope to see a gradual decrease in the number of people with disabilities who are unemployed,” he said.

Grizzard, who is blind as a result of pigmentosa, believes that role-modeling will go a far way in stemming the tide of unemployment and underemployment.

“As more and more people with disabilities begin to see more people with disabilities working it will encourage them to work,” he said.

Another organization seeking to provide links between people with disabilities and prospective employers is the Employer Assistance Referral Network, a free service, which connects employers with candidates with disabilities, and provides answers to employment-related questions.

The Job Accommodation Network provides people with disabilities and their employers free information about reasonable workplace accommodations, most cost less than $250.

Despite the resources that exist to help bridge the gap, between people with disabilities and those seeking to hire, jobs still remain elusive.

“The job competition is so great,” said Catherine Rubbitto, the director of vocational services for Easter Seals Miami-Dade, Inc. “We have trained so many people, but there are not enough jobs for them.”

Additionally, the reality, say many experts, is that there are many people with disabilities with unrealistic goals about what positions they can and cannot fill, and lead to negative experiences. The result: employers who are gun-shy to hire more people with disabilities.

“It is all about relationships that you establish,” Odiseos said. “Employers who have success with one candidate are more likely to give another one a chance.”