Disabled in work force a growing success story

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It wasn't that long ago that Patricia Harvey seemed destined to spend her life in a state institution for the disabled at the taxpayers' expense and with little to do each day.

Today, Ms. Harvey -- whose severely deformed legs were amputated soon after birth and who has a developmental disability -- prepares tableware at the TGI Friday's restaurant in Columbia.

She is a case study in the gains made in helping the disabled enter the work force.

"Virtually anyone, except those with the severest disabilities, can be trained today for work," says Heather Routson, Ms. Harvey's job counselor and a vocational specialist with the Developmental Services Group Inc., the Columbia-based nonprofit organization that trained Ms. Harvey.

Despite resistance in some quarters to hiring the disabled, Mrs. Harvey's job illustrates the expanding opportunities in the region's work force for the disabled.

New technology makes mobility, communication and work easier for people with disabilities, and there is a growing willingness among employers to hire them, say those who work closely with the disabled.

The effects of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1992 federal law that requires employers to make accommodations for the disabled, are a factor, as is a state effort to remove the disabled from state institutions so that they can live independently.

And the disabled are increasingly qualified to fill jobs once considered outside their grasp, says Marian S. Vessels, chairwoman of the Governor's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

Unfortunately, says Robert Hoffman, executive director of Maryland Works, a Columbia-based nonprofit organization that advocates hiring the disabled, "there is a big gap between those who want to work and those that actually find employment."

His organization estimates that of 221,170 adult Marylanders with disabilities, about 88,500 -- or 40 percent -- were employed

in 1990, based on U.S. Census data.

Organizations offer help

To help disabled people get jobs, more than 80 organizations in the Baltimore area offer vocational training programs. They range from Goodwill Industries in Baltimore, which runs one of the largest, to the Students to Employment Program, run by Howard County public schools.

Mrs. Harvey with her restaurant job is a good example of the success organizations, such as Development Services, are able to make with training and support, say disability experts.

"When Pat came to us, she really seemed hopeless. There were days when she would scream and throw chairs," recalls Nancy Simering, a program director at Developmental Services Group (DSG).

Before DSG's experts could even begin to teach Ms. Harvey work skills and habits, they had to help her address her outbursts, depression and other emotional problems stemming

from a difficult childhood, says Mrs. Simering.

DSG assembled a team of medical and vocational experts. It took the team months to show Ms. Harvey how to control her emotions. More months were spent in an in-house vocational training program in which she was slowly integrated into a group.

Over that period, Ms. Harvey learned the importance of showing up on time for work, listening and following instructions from supervisors, and focusing on assigned tasks.

After almost 18 months in DSG's programs, Mrs. Harvey works five mornings weekly at TGI Friday's. She has made friends in the group she works with preparing silverware.

Mrs. Routson, her job counselor, checks in on her periodically.

NB "She has made really remarkable progress," Mrs. Simering says.

Another example

Brenda Carter is another example of how training and support can provide those with disabilities with help toward a productive future.

The Howard County resident was badly injured in a car accident in November 1993 when she smashed into a deer crossing a rural road one night.

When Mrs. Carter, a University of Maryland nursing professor at the time, awoke after a two-week coma, her doctors had bad news: She had suffered serious brain injury. The teaching career she relished was over.

It wasn't long after her recovery that the professor grew restless. "I really wanted to work. It became something I thought about all the time," she recalls.

It is especially challenging to train those with brain injuries to enter, or re-enter, the work force, says Deb Youngquist, director of the Brain Injury Program at DSG.

"One of the overriding issues is making them aware of their injuries. They usually have a difficult time assessing their own abilities," says Ms. Youngquist. "There is also the emotional overlay of denial."

With the help of DSG and much family support, Mrs. Carter jumped those hurdles -- and more.

Her brain injury had resulted in some loss of her ability to memorize. Along with other coping skills, DSG showed Mrs. Carter how to keep a daily log of activities, appointments and work assignments.

"You learn you have strengths, but also that you have areas of weakness," says Mrs. Carter.

In two weeks, she will return to full employment as an aide in the Howard Community College library and the registrar's office. She also hopes to return to the teaching field someday as a teaching assistant.

"I'm thankful there was this possibility," she says.

Like Mrs. Carter, "most people who are disabled want to work," says Mr. Hoffman of Maryland Works.

For example, a 1994 survey of people with disabilities done for the National Organization on Disability, an advocacy group, found that 79 percent of disabled people favor being employed, up from 66 percent in 1986.

Most important link

Mr. Hoffman sees training as the most important link between the growing numbers of the disabled who want to work and the jobs they need.

"People who do get the training and support have a pretty high rate of keeping a job once they land one," he says.

Henry Posko, executive director of Developmental Services Group, says DSG has found that 86 percent of its clients who land work stay employed for at least the six-month period tracked by the group.

There can be frustrations for those who seek training.

Many wait an average of three to six months, according to the state Department of Education's Division of Rehabilitation Services. That is partly because of state budget limitations for a program called "supported employment," in which job coaches and others provide on-the-job assistance.

Maryland Works, the Columbia nonprofit group, estimated in a 1994 report that about 3,000 people statewide were awaiting training in supported employment programs, while about 3,500 were being served by such programs.

In Howard County, where seven local organizations provide employment training opportunities for people with disabilities, there are an estimated 350 to 400 people in such programs, says Ann Wicke, the county's disability services coordinator.

The county is uncertain how many are awaiting entry but plans to hire a consultant this summer to study that and other elements of the employment picture.

Most groups say they have waiting lists. Developmental Services, for example, has about 80 on its list.

Meanwhile, because of inflation and the high price of new technology, the cost of training the disabled is going up.

Diane Pawlowitz of the state Division of Rehabilitation Services says the average cost to train and prepare for work a person with a disability is $16,887, up from $13,519 in 1992. The state will spend about $36 million this year on vocational training for the disabled.

Tax money saved

The payoff comes in tax money saved over the long run, says Ms. Pawlowitz. Some no longer need to be institutionalized and require no other state support.

One state study, she says, found that for every $1 spent on vocational training for the disabled, $7 to $10 was returned to the tax coffers once a person landed a job.

Other benefits are not quite as tangible.

As more citizens work with those who have disabilities, society will become more comfortable with the disabled, Ms. Pawlowitz says.

Ms. Youngquist, who works with the brain-injured, says, "We are all just one moment away from a disability. Working with people who have disabilities may help us all recognize that and see past the disability to the person."

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