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Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009 11:50 pm

More than able

Hiring workers with disabilities is good for the bottom line

Mary Jo Nance found employment at the Gingerbread House Day Care with the help of Sparc nearly nine years ago. The 29-year-old, pictured here in the infant foom, was diagnosed with mental retardation and lives on her own.
Finding a job has never been an easy feat for Kerry Jennings.

Nine years ago, while living in southern Illinois, Jennings sent out nearly 150 resumes. Even though he touted a bachelor’s degree in social work from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and an extra dose of confidence, he was still turned down.

Jennings, who was born with cerebral palsy, wasn’t surprised that most employers considered his wheelchair instead of his skills. He’s since moved to Springfield, hearing several other times that his disability would impede his success in the workplace.

“I went into an interview and knew I nailed the interview, but could just tell I wasn’t going to get the job,” Jennings says. “They didn’t think I could handle it based on my wheelchair, even though I was clearly qualified on paper.”

Jennings has two children who are 12 and 15, and has accepted underpaid temporary or contract jobs throughout the years to support them. He continues to push himself and other people with disabilities to be persistent and determined when seeking employment.

“You have to talk to employers, you have to educate people,” Jennings says. “Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you can’t be a productive member of the workforce.”

Last week Jennings and nearly 80 people from central Illinois businesses, social service organizations and community groups attended a special Springfield summit hosted by disabilityworks, a statewide initiative primarily funded by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Disabilityworks staff briefed the audience on the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2009, and its expansion of the “disability” definition. Under the changes, one out of five Americans has a disability — including those with chronic health conditions like cancer or asthma. More employers need to tap this growing group of diverse workers, the organization says, and benefit from the economic and social supports that accompany them.

Dr. Allan Woodson, the director of workforce development with the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, a summit partner, agrees that hiring more people with disabilities will diversify Springfield’s workforce and help the capital city compete with other communities.

“If we can increase our effectiveness with the disabled community, to put individuals like this to work, that helps out everybody,” Woodson says. “Not only does it help us out from an employer standpoint, because you’re trying to get the very best people, but it also makes a statement to our broader community that we’re reaching out to everybody.”

Robin Jones, the project director for the Disability Business Technical Access Great Lakes ADA Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spends a lot of time answering employers’ questions about the ADA and whether the law covers their employees.

The ADAA, the first amendment to the ADA since its enactment in 1990, passed in September 2008 in response to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that too tightly narrowed the definition of disability. It became clear, Jones told summit members, that changes were needed to broaden the law to protect more employees.

The new legislation maintains the prior definition of disability as “one involving a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” but it now expands the meaning of “major life activities.” These include performing manual tasks, concentrating and working, as well as the operation of major bodily functions such as normal cell growth (for example, cancer is now included within the definition of disability).

The legislation also now includes people who have an impairment that limits only one major life activity and who suffer from episodic or intermittent conditions like migraines, asthma or irritable bowel syndrome.

“The message of the act is that you should assume that people are covered under the law,” Jones said, “and focus on the skills and abilities of the person in front of you.”

While it’s the employer’s responsibility to understand ADA rules and regulations, Jones believes it’s the job applicant’s responsibility to discuss their disabilities, especially if they need an accommodation, such as a computer application to help with low vision or additional space for a wheelchair.

Employers can then choose to meet their request or to provide an effective alternative. According to disabilityworks, accommodations aren’t always required for people with disabilities, and if they are needed, they only cost an average of $300 to $600.

When employers voice concerns about being sued by people with disabilities, Jones tells them “every employee who walks in the door could potentially sue you.” She encourages employers to implement procedures to accommodate people with disabilities and to document their efforts.

“Embrace disability as part of your overall program,” Jones said, “so employees will see a mosaic of society, not something that’s special or different.”

Brandon Von Liski, a 26-year-old with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism, has worked at the Sparc center for nearly six years. His primary job duties involve copying and scanning closed-client files.

People with disabilities should also be held to the same standards as other employees. If they’ve been disciplined for work-related problems, but still haven’t addressed the issues, she says, employers shouldn’t be afraid to fire them.

Thanks to changes in the ADA and in the economy, people with disabilities are considered the fastest growing minority in the country. Selima Ani, the managing director of the Chicagoland Business Leadership Network for disabilityworks, pointed to groups of people such as mature workers and veterans who could soon join the disabled population.

The number of mature workers, or Americans over 55 who continue to work instead of retire, is increasing, Ani said. They can suffer from multiple disabilities, including depression, anxiety, fatigue, weakness, vision impairment and sleep disorders, so their employers need to know how to accommodate them.

The number of veterans returning home with disabilities is also increasing. Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are surviving injuries 16-to-1, Ani said, as compared to the roughly 3-to-1 ratio during the Vietnam conflict. Soldiers with mental disabilities add to these numbers.

According to disabilityworks figures, one in three people between ages 35 and 65 will develop a disability due to accidents or conditions like stroke, cardiac arrest, diabetes or even carpal tunnel syndrome. These people are usually experienced, knowledgeable employees, and their employers will want to keep them on board.

Ani told summit members that there are several other reasons to hire people with disabilities. The majority are heads of households with no children, controlling $220 billion in discretionary spending power.

“Then consider support networks of relatives and friends,” Ani continued. “If they know a business is actively courting the disability dollar, they are more likely to support that business.

“Businesses that make these accommodations see improvement to the bottom line.”

Counter to employers’ misconceptions, studies show that people with disabilities are equal to or better than their non-disabled peers in areas of absenteeism, tardiness and job tenure and performance. People with disabilities also help boost morale and productivity in most workplaces.

Employers benefit financially when hiring people with disabilities. Businesses can receive direct government payments of up to $20,000 annually for each qualified employee through such programs as Ticket-to-Work and the Work Opportunity Act of 2007. Tax incentives include the $5,000 Small Business Tax Credit, the annual $1,200 to $4,800 Work Opportunity Tax Credit and the Architectural/Transportation Barrier Removal Tax Deduction of up to $15,000.

In addition, Ani said, many people with disabilities carry Medicare or Medicaid and don’t require employer-sponsored health care.

Carlissa Puckett, the executive director of Sparc, a Springfield nonprofit organization that provides services to several hundred people with developmental disabilities, attended last week’s special summit as a professional experienced in employment issues.

Sparc offers two employment programs: supported employment and a job placement program. Supported employment matches people with disabilities with private employers. Job coaches help ease their transition, but can eventually allow them to work independently. Puckett says 90 individuals and as many as 60 community businesses and organizations are involved in the supported employment program.

The job placement program finds jobs for people with disabilities who are higher-functioning and more independent than those in the supported employment program. These individuals don’t need a job coach, but are provided with followup services for 90 days after they’re hired. This program can place as many as 30 individuals with community employers.

Seminars like the disabilityworks summit help educate the general public, Puckett says, but more one-on-one conversations with Springfield employers are needed.

“It’s more and more education of employers, so we can eliminate their fear of the unknown,” Puckett says. “And also letting them know what great workers these individuals are. The vast majority of these people want to work — it’s just finding an employer to hire them.”
Jennings, the employment chair for the Springfield Disabilities Commission, agreed that disabilityworks sends a good message about hiring people with disabilities.

“We’re not out to get special treatment,” he says. “We’re just out to get fair and equal treatment.”

Jennings recently worked as the development coordinator for Chrysalis Independence Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit organization that plans to build a fitness center for Springfield’s low-income and disabled communities. As of Sept. 21, he’ll move to a new position with Disability Determination Services at the Illinois Department of Human Services.
As always, he went into the interview with confidence, he says — and this time he found success.

“It all comes down to confidence and how bad you want to work,” Jennings says. “This whole process of disability employment has been my life’s mission to reverse. Being employed is the only true way to be independent.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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