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Disabled find recession stifles impact of new civil rights act

THE BALTIMORE SUN

John Lancaster's first name was reported incorrectly in an article in Sunday's Business section about the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Sun regrets the error.

Back when he was learning to use his wheelchair, Earl Stanley worked in his rehabilitation hospital and its library, labeling books and delivering supplies.

Now that he's living on his own, the 33-year-old Baltimore man says he would love to have a paying job like those. But he isn't even bothering to apply.

And last week's advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to make accommodations for disabled applicants and employees, hasn't made a difference, he said.

Mr. Stanley said he won't start looking for work until he can find a place to live that doesn't have steps. For the last two years, he has had to ask people for help leaving and entering his home, and he can't guarantee an employer he could arrive at work on time, he said.

"My life is at a standstill," he said.

Mr. Stanley's story appears to be echoed across the state.

Although the ADA has been praised as a groundbreaking civil rights bill for the disabled and criticized as an invitation for litigation, last Sunday's start of the employment provisions hasn't created a rush of applications or complaints.

The sagging economy, the law's emphasis on large businesses, Social Security rules that many people say discourage the disabled from working and other problems such as Mr. Stanley's housing difficulties have combined to dampen the immediate impact of the new law.

Employers and disabled people say the law that promised to open the workplace to the approximately 16 million disabled Americans who are unemployed has started with a whisper.

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Part of the reason for the muted effect, business analysts say, is simply timing.

The employment provisions have become law as businesses attempt to struggle out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The effects of the ADA's accessibility provisions, which went into effect Jan. 26, are obvious. They include widened doorways, new wheelchair ramps and the growing use of Teletype machines for the deaf.

But the laws banning discrimination in hiring won't have much impact until companies start hiring again.

Don McCollough, who handles human resources for the 300-worker American Cyanimid plant in Havre de Grace, said he has been slowly revising job applications and job descriptions to make sure there are no illegal questions about disabilities.

But Mr. McCollough said he isn't in a rush about it because he isn't taking applications from anyone, disabled or not. "We're still laying off," he said.

His company will have to make "reasonable accommodations" for any current workers who have disabilities that are protected under the law, but the prospect for openings at manufacturing plants such as his is probably dim, he said.

"We keep hearing the economy is reviving" but don't see much evidence, Mr. McCollough said. "I have no idea when we'll be hiring again."

Even the employers that are supposed to be growing -- health-care operations, high-technology concerns and small businesses -- aren't experiencing a revolution in hiring.

Jean Sherrer, manager of recruitment and selection for the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, said her staff has attended training sessions to learn about the new law and sent out pamphlets explaining the law to managers throughout the hospital.

Sheppard Pratt is looking for a few new workers, but it is also still recalling previously laid-off employees and considering another reorganization that might mean more layoffs, she said.

And small businesses, which have been responsible for all of the net new-job creation in the nation in recent years, aren't covered by the law.

The provisions that took effect last Sunday cover only companies with 25 or more employees. In two years, the law will cover companies with 15 or more employees.

From 1988 through 1990, companies with fewer than 20 employees added 4 million jobs, according to the Small Business Administration. The rest of the country's business laid off more than 1 million workers.

Cheryl Rogers, a manager at Beltsville Plastic Products Co., said she has always welcomed disabled people at her small manufacturing operation and expects, once the economy turns around, to hire again. But for now, she is exempt from the law.

"It really hasn't affected us," she said, noting that a worker who needed expensive accommodations might overwhelm her company. "We couldn't afford to do it," Ms. Rogers said.

The federal government might also be undercutting its own intentions.

Joseph Lancaster, a staff member of the President's Committee on Employment of Individuals with Disabilities, said many people with disabilities won't risk taking a job because it would mean eventual loss of their Social Security payments and health insurance.

"There are huge risks in going back to work," he said, explaining that many people are afraid that if they take a job and then lose it, they won't be able to receive Social Security disability-insurance payments again.

"It is impossible to get back on if you go back to work," he said.

And many jobs open to people with disabilities either don't offer health insurance or can't match the federal government's health programs.

"A person has to make a lot of money to make up for" the loss of health insurance, he said.

But the federal government isn't entirely to blame for the slow start of the ADA, Mr. Lancaster believes.

Many of the disabled, such as Mr. Stanley, face more pressing problems than simply getting into an office building. Some have more than one disability, others lack the training needed to succeed in modern workplaces or need major improvements in their housing or transportation, said Mr. Lancaster, who uses a wheelchair.

In addition, he said, people with disabilities may themselves be responsible for the slow start. Several he knows are hanging back from aggressively using the new law because they have become accustomed to being rejected.

After generations of having others take care of them, people with disabilities "have become disempowered. [The disabled] think they can't work and don't have the sophistication" to apply for jobs and insist on their rights, he said.

Many people, he said, are waiting to see how the law will be applied before testing the job market themselves.

Twenty-year-old Scott Tew may be an example.

Many of Mr. Tew's classmates at Patapsco High School got summer jobs after graduating in June. But Mr. Tew is spending the summer tutoring at the League for the Handicapped office on Cold Spring Lane before he starts his college classes.

Mr. Tew, who has cerebral palsy, said he didn't even think about applying for a job with a private business.

"I have a fear it will be twice as hard for me," he said.

But he said he plans to study computer science at Essex Community College this fall and that he hopes to enter the job market in two years.

"When I go out and get a job, I don't want people looking at my disability, I want them to look at me," he said.

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