Left behind: Disability community still faces employment crisis


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People with disabilities are doing worse now than they were at the height of the unemployment crisis brought on by the Great Recession.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics just started tracking the employment of people who are disabled in June 2008. And in the post-financial crisis, that community is still in crisis.

Using statistics that are not seasonally adjusted, the bureau has found that the unemployment rate for people who do not have disabilities was 8.5 percent in September compared to 16.1 percent for people with disabilities.

While unemployment for the non-disabled population dropped a full percentage point, from 9.5 percent to 8.5 percent, since June 2009 -- when the recession ended -- the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is higher than it was at the end of the recession: 16.1 percent in September versus 14.3 percent in June 2009.

The percentage of people with disabilities who are counted as unemployed does not tell the whole story. While nearly 70 percent of the non-disabled population of the U.S. takes part in the labor force, only 21 percent of the disability community does.

Despite the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, advocates for people with disabilities say they still face discriminatory hiring practices because of mistaken notions that they will cost the company money.

"The truth is most accommodations are very low-cost," said Susan Henderson, the executive director of Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif.

For employees who are blind or have impaired vision, she said, the accommodation can be as inexpensive as screen reading software and a clear aisle to the bathroom.

People who use wheelchairs usually just need a desk that is adjusted to the right height.

Chaz Kellem, the manager of diversity initiatives for the Pittsburgh Pirates, uses a wheelchair but said the accommodations he needed for work were already there when he joined the Pirates in 2005.

"I do have a keyboard tray and mouse tray at my desk," he said, "but the person before me also had a keyboard tray and mouse tray."

PNC Park, where his office is located, was designed to be wheelchair accessible.

"The truth is most businesses are already employing people with disabilities," Ms. Henderson said, noting that disabilities can include diabetes, cancer and Crohn's disease.

"There are probably people in most work places that have a disability, but no one knows it," she said.

When people think of disabilities, they usually picture someone who is obviously disabled. For instance, the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy's brochure on diversifying work forces by recruiting, hiring and retaining employees with disabilities has a photo on the front with the usual diversity buffet: some women, some minorities and the obviously disabled person -- the only white man in the photo -- is sitting in a wheelchair.

Jill Houghton, interim executive director of the U.S. Business Leadership Network in Washington, D.C., said rather than talk about "accommodations" for people with disabilities, she prefers to use the term "productivity tools," which she credits to Kathy Martinez, the assistant secretary of the labor department's Office of Disability Employment Policy.

Ms. Houghton said that is what any changes are all about: making workers more productive.

The reality, she said, is many people with disabilities start their own businesses when they can't get traction in the labor force.

A boost to those business owners is recent federal legislation that recognizes businesses owned by people who are disabled as minority-owned businesses, making them eligible for various government programs.

At the Three Rivers Center for Independent Living in Wilkinsburg, executive director Stanley Holbrook said the organization can work with employers and employees to make sure accommodations are reasonable so that employees with disabilities perform up to the expectations in place for other workers.


Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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