The Last Straw for a Disabled Businessman

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I would like to respond to the article (July 5) and editorial (July 7) that appeared in The Sun for Howard County regarding my resignation from the Howard County Equal Business Opportunity Commission.

Both the article and editorial were correct and fairly explained the event that triggered my resignation. However, I want to provide some background on the long series of events that led up to my decision.

The article does state that my company, a certified disadvantaged business owned by persons with disabilities, was denied an opportunity to perform a Fair Housing contract for the Howard County Office of Human Rights -- a contract which my company was well- , if not the best, qualified to perform. The contract was awarded to a firm outside of Howard County. This firm allegedly had the low bid and is a woman-owned business.

This is not the first time that my 10-year-old Howard County-based business has been denied contract work with the county. . . . This alone would not have been enough for me to resign had there not also been numerous other problems this county government has caused me, other minority businesses and persons with disabilities over the past several years.

The unemployment rate of persons with disabilities in this country, according to the Department of Labor, is around 69 percent. Of those employed, 85 percent are "underemployed," that is, at a level far below their education and experience. They survive on Social Security Disability Income, welfare, institutional programs or support from their families.

Their major employer is still the federal and state governments. Survival is tied directly to the tax dollar -- tax-dependents, not taxpayers. In the current climate of government cutting -- note that one of the first programs cut by Gov. Parris Glendening was the disability supplement program because "the state could no longer afford it" -- people with disabilities are very vulnerable.

Over the past several years, I have been speaking to a number of disability groups about the importance of economic independence, to look beyond the traditional tax program or charitable organizations and begin to enter the business world.

. . . But people with disabilities have been shut out of the business world because of ignorance, prejudice and architectural and attitudinal barriers. This is why businesses owned by persons with disabilities are considered minority businesses under state and county law.

So why would I be so discouraged by the commission's efforts? Here are just a few of the barriers I have had to deal with over the past few years as a taxpayer in Howard County. My problems are not unusual, . . . but they are real.

* I had to file a complaint with the Department of Justice in order to gain access to the Supreme Health Club. Nearly $6 million was used to construct a new facility for this health club. I pay my Columbia property fees and have been a paying member for more than 10 years. However, access for persons with disabilities was forgotten except for a back-door "lift" which was part of a complex system of entry and one which I could not use. Only after an investigation by the Justice Department did the Columbia Association yield to an alternative key entry system for persons with disabilities. The key access system means I still must enter separately from my friends or family when using the facility when access, had it been properly planned for, could have been included at no additional cost. . . .

* Last fall, the president of the County Council made bigoted remarks about persons with disabilities because people with disabilities had asked the county to install a lift in the Banneker Room so that when the council moved to the bottom level of the room, persons with disabilities would not be segregated. Had Charles Feaga's remarks been made in the same manner, but merely replacing "African-American," "Jewish" or "Hispanic" in place of handicapped, he would have been run out of town on a rail. But only The Sun covered his insensitive remarks; there was not one word from the Human Relations Commission.

Now there are no plans to install the lift because the council decided not to move to the floor area. It, of course, blames persons with disabilities for demanding a lift that cost $40,000 to $50,000. The same day it rejected the lift, the next item of business was the funding of a new public golf course.

* The county government has still not met its goals regarding hiring and promoting people with disabilities in Howard County government positions. There are no persons with disabilities in the management levels and the percentage of persons with disabilities in the county work force has declined. . . .

The definition of a minority business also includes "businesses" (such as non-profit organizations) that serve people with disabilities. Organizations like these do not even have to have people with disabilities in management positions or in control of the board of directors.

In fact, many of the organizations that qualify under the state definition not only don't have persons with disabilities in management positions, but those who do work for the organization often receive less than minimum wage and are forbidden from unionization because of an old provision in Maryland state labor law. The only "disability-qualified" business have received a Howard County contract falls directly into this category. . . .

* Facilities like Merriweather Post and the hospital still refuse to act quickly to resolve barriers to access.

* I received no assistance from the Howard County Small Business Administration and have had to run my business without a loan on a cash-flow basis. Those of you in business understand the difficulty of meeting payroll under these circumstances. . . .

Is it any wonder that this last rejection regarding a project which I had brought to the county's attention was truly the last straw? When will my county government work with me?

I would like to continue on the commission. There are wonderful and dedicated people there who have volunteered their time to serve our county and who I think are genuinely supportive of my position.

However, I cannot continue to make a sacrifice of time and energy if the county is not serious. It must aggressively attack access problems, vigorously attempt to bring more people with disabilities into the county government and help -- yes, help --

people with disabilities become entrepreneurs.

Robert S. Ardinger

Columbia

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