People with disabilities are the nation’s largest minority, and the only one that any person can join at a moment’s notice. Those who weren’t born with a disability have about a 20 percent chance of becoming disabled at some point during their work life.
If you are disabled or become disabled, you need to know your rights, as well as who and what is available to help you find employment or keep your employment. There are multiple laws to protect you, government and federal agencies to contact for information in addition to consulting/staffing firms that have established relationships with companies that hire people with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of workers’ disabilities, whether physical or mental. This act mandates that employers can’t ask job applicants certain questions about their conditions or maintain work sites that have physical barriers to the movement of people with disabilities.
The ADA protects job applicants who are qualified (those who have the appropriate skills necessary) for a particular job with some form of accommodation. These accommodations could be adding computer software, modifying a work schedule or customizing a workstation.
Bender Consulting Services, Inc., is a firm that provides consulting jobs for people with disabilities who have expertise in the information technologies fields. BCS contracts its employees to client companies in the Pittsburgh, Pa. area as well as Wilmington, Del. and Houston and Ft. Worth, Texas. In 1985, Joyce Bender, President and CEO of BCS, had a life-threatening accident due to epilepsy, that caused a cerebral hemorrhage which subsequently required brain surgery. Bender recovered from the accident with 40 percent loss of hearing in one ear and the realization that she had epilepsy.
As a result of her personal experience, Bender developed a passion for helping people with disabilities. To date, BCS has placed consultants in major organizations such as Computer Sciences Corporation, JP Morgan, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield and Bayer Corporation.
Staci Kaczkowski works for BCS, placing consultants who have disabilities. She says that while the current economy is tough, it has leveled the playing field for people with disabilities. The job market is looking better at this time, she said
The high-tech field is one area where people with disabilities can easily work in. Basically, with technology, disability is a non-issue, said Kaczkowski. When you’re dealing with people on the other end of a computer, they have no idea if someone’s using assistive technology.
Michael Gravitt knows that first-hand. As a team leader in systems consulting for BCS, Gravitt has worked on assignment for Bayer Corporation since 1998. Gravitt is from Southern Virginia and is legally blind.
I met BCS at a job fair in Washington, DC, that was geared towards people with disabilities, Gravitt explained. I graduated college in December 1997 with a Bachelors Degree in Business Administration with my focus on Management Information Systems. I was hired by BCS in February 1998 and placed with a job at Bayer right away.
Although Gravitt was offered several jobs after graduation, he found that BCS offered a deal that suited him best.
Gravitt seems to have an advantage over a lot of people with disabilities: he’s got technical skills that employers want. Those skills started from a young age. Growing up legally blind in a small town, there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment or activities. That is, until his father brought home a computer. The computer was really my only outlet as a child, he said. It really fascinated me and by the time I was 11 or 12 years old, I was writing simple programs.
Gravitt stresses that people with disabilities have to be flexible to land a great job. Typically, for someone in my position, the greatest challenge is getting a job. Finding an environment that is open-minded to multiculturalism and diversity can be a struggle, Gravitt said. That’s why he likes his job so much: he is not treated as a person with a disability at work and said simple communication can open the door for opportunity.
Companies like BCS helps. Typically we already have people (with disabilities) placed with an employer when we bring in someone new, said Gravitt. Bayer employs 7 of us from BCS currently. That helps provide an atmosphere where everybody can feel comfortable and be productive.
Accommodations needed for a person with disabilities to perform their job depend on the disability. I have software on my computer (Zoomtext) that magnifies information displayed on my screen sixteen times its size. I also use a machine that has a camera on it to put printed materials on the screen for me, Gravitt explained.
For someone who is completely blind, there are provisions in place to assist them in using computers. For example, Section 508 was put into effect to ensure that the electronic and information technology federal agencies use is accessible for people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public.
All Web sites must be able to work with speech software. The information is formatted in a certain way for it to grab it and interpret it for speech translators, Gravitt added.
As advice to someone looking for employment, Gravitt said to send resumes out everywhere and have flexibility in what you are willing to do. Besides the job searches on the Internet, I know the American Counsel for the Blind has a job bank with employers that are looking for individuals to hire, Gravitt added.
While disabled workers can find work, especially in the high tech sector, they are still facing an unemployment rate of over 70 percent, by some counts. We see it as a large untapped labor pool, said Kaczkowski. There are 13 million Americans with disabilities of working age and the majority want to work. What’s holding them back?
One frequently sited problem is that employers don’t understand the benefits of hiring disabled workers. A job placement counselor for a U.S. government agency who requested anonymity said that 95 percent of his job is educating employers on how people with disabilities can contribute to their organization. He introduces them to assistive technology and other equipment via pictures and talks to them about breaking down the myths of hiring someone with a disability.
Employers have difficulty understanding how disabled people get to work everyday, let alone what is required to get the job done, said the government agency counselor. For example, many employers think that hiring a disabled worker will be expensive. People are really surprised, said Kaczkowski. Accommodations are usually less than $500. It could be just making a larger cubicle for someone in a wheelchair. So it’s not necessarily cost-prohibitive.
Another myth is that disabled workers are sick more often, says Kaczkowski. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Eighty five percent of our staff have disabilities and some haven’t had a sick day in over five years, she said. People think (disabled workers) won’t be there and that’s just not true.
Advocates for disabled workers say they offer many benefits to employers. The biggest advantage to both employer and employee is that disabled workers have learned how to be flexible says Kaczkowski. They’re able to overcome adversity and solve problems. The government placement counselor agrees. Disabled workers have trained themselves to adapt to their environment, he said.
What’s more, many disabled workers show a trait that has disappeared in recent years: company loyalty. They appreciate the fact that they have a job and they’re willing to be loyal to the company, said Kaczkowski.