Lack of Jobs, Accessible Homes Another Disability to Overcome


February 18, 2007

By Randy Myers
Contra Costa Times

BERKELEY, D.C. - In the 35 years since the disability rights
movement took root in Berkeley, changes have swept the nation
without achieving the goal of full equality.

On the plus side, federal and state buildings are more accessible,
schools are better versed in meeting special needs and perceptions
have largely changed.

The federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with
Disabilities Act, signed by former President Bush in 1990, fueled
some of those actions.

Now, advocates want to increase the number of disabled people in
the workforce. Other top priorities include lowering the high
poverty rate, ensuring technological advances accommodate the
disabled and creating more affordable, accessible housing.

The dismal employment picture might not be foremost in the public
consciousness, but it hounds the disabled.

"Employment has always been one of the things that have been on
the front burner for people with disabilities," said Gerald
Baptiste, deputy director of the 35-year-old
Berkeley Center for
Independent Living. Baptiste lost most of his sight when he was
29.

"We realize that with employment comes a decrease in poverty. With
a decrease in poverty comes ... better health. With better health
comes a better quality of life."

Two years ago, Jamila Feldman, 63, lost her part-time job teaching
English at the
College of Alameda. The Fulbright scholar is
paralyzed on her left side and has a learning disability. She
landed a summer job but now is looking for permanent employment.

"I've been all over the place," the
Berkeley resident said. "It's
been terrible. It's been awful."

She is not alone. About 35 percent of disabled Americans had jobs
in 2004, compared with 78 percent for people without disabilities,
according to the National Organization on Disability/Harris Poll.

In 2000, those figures were 3 percent lower. Some take issue at
that modest gain, contending numbers have been underreported and
that surveys rely on different definitions of what constitutes a
disability. In severe cases, obesity can be considered a
disability, according to the Department of Justice.

Nationally, little effort has been devoted to the employment
problem, said Jan Garrett, executive director of the
Berkeley
center.

"From my experiences, it's mostly state vocational rehabilitation
agencies that are principally being the ones that are trying to
get the people educated and trained and into the workplace," said
Garrett, who was born without limbs. "But I don't really see a lot
of national programs nor a national push."

In one of its main provisions, the Americans with Disabilities Act
bans employers from discriminating against an employee or
potential employee with a disability. Furthermore, the law states
the employer must make "reasonable accommodations" unless "such
covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose
an undue hardship on the operation of the business."

The challenge then comes in enforcing the law and defending it in
court, where, advocates say, the law most often loses because it
is interpreted too narrowly. A 2006 report by the National Council
on Disability urged the Department of Justice and the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission - where claims are filed -- to
reaffirm its commitment to "vigorously enforce" the law and to
aggressively prevent violations through proactive investigations.

The Department of Justice has been a party in 20 cases. In 2005,
the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 14,893 claims
of disability discrimination, with the agency resolving 15,357
charges. Upward of 90 percent of judgments side with employers,
according to researchers. The American Bar Association found that
of the 401 decisions reached in 2005, employees won 6.2 percent of
the time.

The cases the Department of Justice successfully represented
included a blind teacher in
Baltimore whose job offer was
rescinded after she told a principal she would be picking up her
service animal. Another case involved a police academy trainee
whose request for additional food to offset his low blood sugar --
because of diabetes -- was denied.

California tackles the jobs issue through an assortment of
programs, resources and special committees.

A state advisory committee formed to increase employment in 2006
recommended ways to make hiring disabled people more attractive to
businesses.

Some disabled people remain wary about re-entering the workforce,
fearing they will lose health benefits and Social Security,
Baptiste said. The center works to help ensure key benefits remain
protected when a disabled person gets a job.

In Contra Costa and Solano counties, better public transportation
and affordable housing rank as top concerns along with jobs, said
Bryan Balch, executive director for the two-county Independent
Living Center. He oversees four offices, the main one in
Concord
and satellite branches in
Antioch, Richmond and Fairfield.

"What we're working on right now is trying to educate employers
about hiring a person who is disabled and dispelling a lot of the
myths," Balch said.

Employers frequently balk because they assume costs will cut into
the bottom line. Federal agencies and advocates debunk that as
myth.

On average, employers spend $100 to make necessary adjustments for
a disabled employee, Balch estimates. A survey by Sears found that
69 percent of the 436 accommodations it made cost the company
nothing, with 28 percent costing less than $1,000 and 3 percent
more than $1,000.

A business lauded for hiring the disabled and making its work
environment more accessible is Hewlett-Packard. The maker of
information and technology products hires to maintain a diversity
of opinions, said company spokesman Ed Woodward. Customers like
it, too, he added.

Hewlett-Packard partners with the American Association of People
With Disabilities and holds a Disability Mentoring Day. Making the
corporation, which employs 156,000 worldwide, accessible -- from
its computer screens to work stations -- remains a high priority,
said Mary Ellen Parker, the company's culture and diversity
program manager.

"They just want to be able to perform their job like anyone else,"
Parker said.

Hiring was an original goal of the Americans with Disabilities
Act. But the measure didn't go deep enough, advocates say. In
2001, President Bush renewed the bid to integrate disabled people
in the workplace and society with his New Freedom Initiative. Some
advocates say it does little, and others call it a setback.

A 2006 Department of Justice report, "Access for All: Five Years
of Progress," trumpets the changes in physical accessibility for
disabled people while acknowledging improvements must be made in
the job market.

Other needs include affordable housing designed for disabled
people and more provisions for disabled students, said Marilyn
Goldman of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in
Berkeley.

"People with disabilities don't always get a fair shake and don't
get accommodations on the job," she said. "So all these areas have
to improve."


Reach Randy Myers at rmyers@cctimes.com or 925-977-8419.

Disability Defined - How the state defines a "disability:"

* A physical or mental impairment that limits one or more of
  the major life activities

* A record of such impairment

* Being regarded as having such an impairment


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