Hiring disabled can pay off for employers; Jobs: Tax breaks and training funds are among the benefits businesses reap from giving work to people with disabilities.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Randy Hariton's "reasonable accommodation" dangles from a cord around his neck.

Hariton, legally considered blind, sometimes peers through a small, round magnifying glass -- which he brought from home -- to read printed material.

Danny Haley, Hariton's manager at PC Plus in Lenexa, also provides a 17-inch monitor (bigger than the typical 14-inch screen) for Hariton's use. With a nose-to-the-computer-screen posture, Hariton can read what's there.

That's what it took to integrate one worker with a disability into one workplace.

"Hey, Randy can do the work. That's all that matters," Haley said.

But, nine years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed to reduce workplace barriers for persons with disabilities, many employers aren't saying the same thing. They don't have experience in the matter.

The ADA guarantees workers with disabilities the right to "reasonable accommodation" to help them perform the essential functions of their jobs.

Because of publicity about big-dollar discrimination lawsuits and expensive work site accommodations, advocates for workers with disabilities say most employers fear recruiting or hiring employees with physical or mental impairments.

Despite record low unemployment rates and high turnover among nondisabled employees, workers with disabilities continue to have a "staggering" unemployment rate, said Tony Coelho, chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, who introduced the ADA as a congressman.

The 1995 Census Bureau's Current Population Survey found that fewer than a third of the nation's 16 million working-age, noninstitutionalized persons with disabilities were employed.

In 1998, the National Organization on Disability Harris Poll found that three of 10 working-age adults with disabilities were employed full- or part-time, compared with eight of 10 persons without disabilities.

Furthermore, the Harris Poll found, three of four of the unemployed adults with disabilities said they wanted to be working.

Coelho's committee is trying to spread that word, plus this one:

The national Job Accommodation Network has found that in 20 percent of the cases in which reasonable accommodations have been made for workers with disabilities, there has been no cost to the employer. Another 60 percent of the accommodations cost less than $1,000.

According to the ADA and subsequent case law, prospective employers may ask job candidates if they require any special accommodations to perform the tasks as described. Interviewers are not to ask applicants if they have disabilities that might impair their abilities to work.

The woman who is severely deaf requires special telephones but otherwise functions in the corporate world because of her ability to read lips.

Still, workers who are deaf often report difficulty dealing with co-workers who seem to be uncomfortable with their deaf colleagues' direct gazes or who misjudge their lack of conversation as a lack of teamwork.

That's why some workers with physical or mental disabilities applaud corporate diversity training but criticize it for sometimes failing to go far enough. They say organizations also should teach nondisabled workers how to interact with persons who are sight- or hearing-impaired, use wheelchairs or have other mental or physical limitations.

Advocates contend such education might help reduce the number of ADA complaints filed against employers. Through the 1998 fiscal year, 91,000 ADA complaints had been filed.

The chasm separating skilled workers with disabilities from mainstream employers is large, but some bridges are being built.

Some organizations are expanding diversity training from a focus on race and gender. Others are reaching out to sheltered workshops and schools to find trained or trainable staff members.

A Kansas City example that has earned national acclaim is the integration of people referred from IBS Industries Inc., a sheltered workshop, to a General Services Administration requisition office. Workers there have won productivity and accuracy awards for their data entry.

Another bridge was crafted by Alternative Resources Corp.'s REACH program. ARC is a nationwide staffing services company that specializes in technology-related jobs. Its REACH program places persons with disabilities into technical-job openings posted by ARC's clients.

ARC's REACH program is what brought Randy Hariton to PC Plus. The staffing service was prepared to provide any accommodation that might be needed, though in Hariton's case none was.

David Grant, ARC's project support specialist in Kansas City, said the staffing service works with area vocational rehabilitation groups and government offices to identify people for work force mainstreaming.

"A lot of businesses fear the ADA and getting into trouble," Grant said. "Knowledge is the key."

Part of that knowledge includes awareness of tax breaks, federal funding for training, and assistive technology for workers with disabilities, Grant said. Grants can be directed to employers, rehab centers, staffing services or sheltered workshops.

Even the most outspoken advocates for hiring workers with disabilities agree that complying with the ADA and its case law requires expertise. When ARC began to explore the job-applicant pool, it hired a corporate disability and diversity manager.

"In part, I meet with vo-tech and rehab counselors to educate them about our needs and help them spend their money to make their people usable" by mainstream employers, said Sheridan Walker, ARC's disability manager.

According to the national Job Accommodation Network, the average return on every dollar invested in work site accommodation in 1996 was $28.69.

Only 3 percent of organizations that provided accommodations for employees' disabilities reported spending more than $5,000.

More typical were such low-cost accommodations as buying a larger pair of tweezers for a worker with limited fine-motor dexterity (cost, $5) or installing text telephone technology on a cellular phone to help a deaf employee communicate from the field (cost, $400, plus a monthly service fee for the phone).

Other studies have addressed the job-performance concerns of employers who were wary of hiring workers with disabilities.

For example, DuPont employee surveys, taken in 1973, 1981 and 1990, tracked performance reviews of employees with disabilities and nondisabled workers. Looking at those who rated average or better in their reviews, the company found no significant difference in performance between the two groups,

Advocates for hiring workers with disabilities say a disability should never be considered an excuse for doing substandard work. Provided that accommodations make it possible for people to perform a job's essential tasks, employees should be held to the same standards as their peers.

Plenty of legal wiggle room remains about what is a disability and what is a reasonable accommodation. This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court continued to narrow the definitions by saying, in essence, that correctable or corrected disabilities did not have the same protection under the ADA.

Experts remind business owners that, because interpretations of the law are evolving, it's wise to obtain counsel from labor lawyers or human resource experts when dealing with disability-related employment.

Despite continued worries and questions, the Society for Human Resource Management reports positive views from employers who are experienced hirers of persons with disabilities. The employers mention employee loyalty and willingness to work as key attributes.

Similarly, 87 percent of businesses that hired people with disabilities told Mason-Dixon pollsters they would encourage other employers to do the same.

Count Haley, Randy Hariton's supervisor at PC Plus, among the satisfied.

Starting this month, Hariton won't have a job through the staffing service company anymore.

"I'm hiring Randy full-time," Haley said.

Diane Stafford is a reporter for the Kansas City Star, in which this article first appeared.

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