Disabled workers can be an asset in the workplace, if given a chanceNovember 17, 2012
Author: Olivera Perkins | The Plain Dealerhttp://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2012/11/disabled_workers_can_be_an_ass.html#incart_river
Aaron McKinney stacked big birthday buttons on a shelf at the Just-A-Buck store at Maymore Plaza in South Euclid.
"I've got a great job," he said, opening a box of merchandise.
That might be an understatement.
A few months earlier, McKinney was stuffing bags in a workshop for the developmentally disabled. He found the work tedious. Sitting at the same station most of the day irked him. He didn't get a steady paycheck.
Even in the best of times, people with disabilities have had unemployment rates at least 50 percent higher than the overall rate. During the recession and the recovery, the gap has widened, with jobless rates for the disabled sometimes nearly 90 percent higher.
Many advocates for people with disabilities say the situation is even bleaker than it appears. Discouraged, many of these job-seekers have given up and turned to disability insurance benefits, which have seen a jump in applications in recent years.
Such high unemployment was among the reasons the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities opened the store at 4507 Mayfield Road a year ago today. The board opened its first dollar store at 1844 Snow Road in Parma's Midtown Shopping Center more than three years ago. A third store is scheduled for Rocky River next year.
This isn't the only business venture formed in recent years to hire the disabled. For example, the Cleveland Sight Center runs a call center in which visually impaired operators answer calls for businesses and state agencies that have contracted with the organization.
The national unemployment rate for the disabled was 12.9 percent in October, down from 13.2 percent a year before. The overall unemployment rate was 7.3 percent, down from 8.3 percent a year earlier.
This meant the jobless rate for disabled workers in October was 77 percent higher than the overall rate. (Disabled jobless figures are not seasonally adjusted. The seasonally adjusted overall rate for October was 7.9 percent, down from 8.9 percent a year earlier.)
Depending on the disability, joblessness can be even higher. About 75 percent of visually impaired adults don't have jobs, sight center officials said. Such numbers held true even before the recession, said Joel Zureick director of social services at the sight center and the employment program that prepares clients for jobs.
It was seven years between jobs for Paula Winter, and it wasn't for a lack of trying. Libraries couldn't see that she is an avid book lover. Tutoring programs couldn't see her assets as a Spanish tutor. Winter has atypical retinitis pigmentosa, which has gradually caused her to lose vision.
"I cannot see the screen for the life of me," she said jokingly, referring to her call center computer.
She doesn't have to.
A call comes in to 1-800-Buckeye, the information line run by the Office of TourismOhio . Winter listens to the caller in her right ear. She enters a few keystrokes, which takes her to a website with an answer to the caller's question. A computer program, Job Access With Speech, or JAWS, converts the text on the screen into speech. Winter listens to it through her left ear and then responds to the caller's question.
"You have to multi-task or perish," she said.
That goes for her job as well as being blind.
Winter, of Eastlake, said so many would-be employers overlooked this asset.
"I wanted them to look at me first and look at my disability later," she said.
The sight center went from placing nine clients in jobs in 2010 to 32 in 2011 and 30 so far this year. Winter began her job last summer, after six months of computer training.
Zureick credits the center's emphasis on job readiness and placement - preparing clients for the employer's needs and allowing clients to train at their own pace.
Some employers reluctant
Jo Anne Schneider, an associate research professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has researched recession employment trends among people with disabilities. She said the economic downturn worsened an already-dire situation.
"What I think is happening is that employers are not hiring anyone who is going to cost them," she said. "The presumption is that a person with a disability will need accommodations, will have higher insurance cost, etc."
Disability advocates say that isn't necessarily true. Lori Golden the AccessAbilities leader for Ernst & Young's 173 offices across the Americas, including one in Cleveland, said adaptive equipment usually costs under a few hundred dollars per accommodation. Despite the efforts, often from big companies like the accounting and financial giant, few human resource managers have a disabilities expertise, Schneider said.
She said deep cuts in governmental and nonprofit spending have left the disabled vulnerable. Many of those who helped with training and finding jobs for the disabled have been laid off. Funding to create jobs for the disabled also has dried up.
Disabled people want -- and need -- to work for the same reasons as everybody else. McKinney, of Warrensville Heights, the Just-A-Buck worker, said he finds his job fulfilling. He likes interacting with the public, something he didn't get to do at the workshop. The workshop failed to give him a more tangible reward as well.
"If I work, I need to be paid," he said of the importance of a steady paycheck. "I have to live like everybody else."
Amanda Halstead of Cleveland Heights, who was carefully hanging up snow ball ornaments nearby, expressed similar sentiments: "I like the money, and I like my co-workers."
The loss of manufacturing jobs during the recession shrank a reliable source of jobs where the Board of Developmental Disabilities could place clients. Operating the dollar store franchises appeared to be a good idea because retail jobs didn't seem like they would dry up. The goal is not only to employ the disabled, but to train them to work at retail stores, said Kimberly Pritchard, who manages the board's Just-A-Buck stores.
Denise Auvil, the assistant manager, who worked in retail for years, said these are the most enthusiastic employees she has every supervised.
"They really focus on doing a good job," she said. "In typical retail, you have a lot of people who are not too excited about doing their jobs. Here, you have some who want to come in on their days off."
Ken Eickholt, who does job placement for the board, said the stores are increasing acceptability about disabled workers. One human resources manager told him she was a customer.
"If they can see them in action in the community, at places like Just-A-Buck, they may be less hesitant," he said.
Despite the disabled proving they can be valued employees, many people are ambivalent about their place in the labor force, said Kathy Martinez, assistant secretary for disability employment policy for the U.S. Labor Department. Martinez knows first-hand about such sentiments. Unable to find work, she reluctantly resorted to disability benefits in the past.
"When they saw a blind person like me, they would probably say: 'Yeah, it is ok if she is on benefits, she's blind,' " Martinez said.
But that wasn't OK with her because she knew she could be a valued employee and a taxpayer, instead of what she said was a drain on the government.
"For people with disabilities, employment is like the final frontier," Martinez said.
Disability claims stabilizing
Claims for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits have recently stabilized, though they had increased since the recession officially began in December 2007. (It officially ended in June 2009.)
During the first nine months of 2012 -- the latest data available -- there were about 2.2 million applications for benefits, according to analysis of federal data by Allsup, a national provider of Social Security disability services. For the first nine months of 2008, applications totaled about 1.7 million.
Many disability advocates say the numbers have spiked because of discouraged disabled workers, who have given up chasing the elusive job. Other reasons include applications from laid off workers, who formerly weren't classified as disabled, said Tricia Blazier, an Allsup manager. She said they often worked with chronic conditions that have worsened, preventing them from landing or returning to a job.
Martinez said her department is focused on getting employers to stop viewing hiring the disabled as a charity.
"We want to take disability off the 'special shelf' and weave it into the fabric of the workplace," she said.
The department's efforts include promoting a database of qualified job applicants, many of them recent college graduates. The government has developed guides and other resources for creating an inclusive workplace as well as promoted the practices of companies that have excelled at hiring and incorporating disabled employees into the workplace.
Ernst & Young is among them. Golden, who oversees the company's efforts in the Americas, said the company comes by incorporating people with disabilities naturally. One of its founders, Arthur Young, had low vision and was hard of hearing.
The company's practices include evaluating the physical work environment to make sure there aren't barriers for the disabled. Golden said this often makes a better workplace for everybody.
For example, putting frequently used supplies on a shelf that won't pose difficulty for a person in a scooter often makes it easier for everyone to get to. Another practice includes making sure people with disabilities are represented in the pipeline of potential candidates.
"We have a long tradition of understanding that talent comes in a variety of packages," she said.