Disabled Workers Skills Overcome Employer Concerns

Joseph Heller, the author of “Catch 22”, would have a field day with the issues surrounding employment of people with disabilities. Alice wouldn’t have to go through the looking-glass. The Theater of the Absurd has thrived for years on the same elements that fuel discrimination of any type – fear based on lack of information – but the information is getting out, and it appears that the fears are beginning to be allayed.

Beginning even before the slogan-rich days of “Hire the Handicapped” and similar well-intentioned exhortations, both employer and prospective disabled employee espoused the economic rationale for employment of those with disabilities. Not surprisingly, the rationale varied with viewpoint. From a philosophical point of view, employers – taxpayers all – generally understood that the more an individual earned through his or her own efforts, the less the taxpayer would have to contribute to an “acceptable” lifestyle on the part of that individual. The philosophy, similar in some respects to today’s earnest protestations about the plight of the homeless, was generic in nature, spoken as a member of one group concerning members of another group. Individual action was neither contemplated nor necessary.

On the other side, members of the disabled community felt both the benefits of community largesse and its drawbacks, most having to do with self-image, skills development and self-determination. Regardless of its nature or dimension, community largesse seldom “keeps” one in a manner to which one would wish to become accustomed. As established, however, the traditional incentives of a free-market economy are starkly lacking in the community/disabled economic cooperative – for each dollar individually earned, more than a dollar – sometimes substantially more than a dollar – in funds and services is removed from the economic package, providing an employment disincentive that would soon obliterate any of the more classic free-enterprise economic systems.

The disabled/community economic system is more personal than “classic”, however, and the text on its proper relationship continues to be written. In spite of continuing disincentives, persons without all abilities are eager to put those that they have to productive use. The intensity and persistence of their desire produced the most recent chapter in the text, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One component of the Act relates to employment. As do customs require face-to-face communication to resolve issues within a single household, the ADA requires a face-to-face weighing of abilities for particular tasks, and consideration of such modest accommodations as may be necessary to permit the most qualified set of abilities to be employed.

The surprise of some, these “forced negotiations” have, far from disrupting business or padding the cost column, opened up a whole new bank of capability, one that comes packaged complete with intelligence, responsibility and eagerness to hone already-acquired skills.

With special employer incentives from the government, community-based training for the employee, and in most cases surprisingly little in the way of accommodations required for the benefit of the (continued from page 1)
new employee, positive reports concerning these new relationships have become commonplace. One example in the Twin Cities is that experienced by Minneapolis’ training consortium the Minneapolis Rehabilitation Centers, (MRC).

Through the efforts of a dedicated staff and a wide array of community and corporate resources (see related story, Pg. 2) MRC recently graduated 14 newly-trained Computer-Aided-Design (CAD) specialists. All, according to the graduation program, were people with “severe physical and/or sensory disabilities”. Within recent memory, the quoted phrase might easily have been translated “unemployable”. The label might have been placed for nearly as many reasons as there were prospective employers – inconvenience; personnel sensitivity; concern over liability; cost; productivity; precedent – you name it. But as with other minority groups, labels – and the prejudices they highlight – are subject to the light of experience as well as the force of law. While the law may dictate behavior, attitudes typically spring from experience, and the attitudes of the employers of the new MRC graduates appear universally as positive as those of the graduates themselves.

While not all the graduates have found employment, all have gained work experience through a three-month internship program at local companies. Some of those companies have established contractual relationships with their former interns, and all appear quite satisfied with the arrangement.

Dayton’s Commercial Interiors” Elizabeth Brodsky calls the internship and subsequent paid relationship with MRC grad Louella Kolesar “nothing but a good experience”. Louella, who has CP, “loves the work” revising drawings on the computer. It shows, too, according to Elizabeth, who finds Louella not only pleasant and eager, but – and this is a recurring theme – just as capable as a non-disabled worker. Working under a contract due to a corporate hiring freeze, Louella is not on the company’s benefit roster, but for the moment, this is a secondary consideration for her. Through rehab testing at MRC she “found skills I never knew I had”, and she is grateful for the opportunity Dayton’s is providing for her to exercise them.

Similar feelings are expressed by quadriplegic Guy Marcucci, whose income from KFA Engineering is the first he’s personally generated since being injured in 1969. With one brother a surveyor and another a draftsman, his interest in working with computers in a graphic way comes naturally, but it took a combination of MRC and KFA to create the opportunity to express it. Entering hand-drawn piping and instrumentation drawings for a coke refinery into the computer is like practice for him, he says, looking forward to the day when he can come in on Saturdays to increase his keyboard capabilities.

As far as accommodations are concerned, Guy’s co-workers “bend over backwards for him, facilities are sufficiently accessible, and hours are flexible to permit time off when personal care requirements dictate.

For the company’s part, supervisor Bill Schirado says Guy is doing well. He’s quite pleased with his performance – as good as a non-disabled person – and “impressed” at Guy’s independence and take-charge attitude concerning the inconveniences of his disability.

While under contract and not eligible for employee benefits at this time, Guy is preparing to notify the VA when his income reaches $3800, and Social Security after nine months or so, when the cutoff level is reached, though his financial gain for full-time work may only amount to $100/mo. “It’s worth it”, he says.

While our on-contract examples were in that status for volume-of-work reasons, some employers may be concerned with increases in benefit costs should persons with disabilities be hired as full-time employees. In most cases, those fears are groundless, according to one insurance expert, Mass Mutual’s Gary Morgan, CLU, CHFC (333-1413).

While pre-existing conditions treated within the past 90 days are usually difficult to add to a group policy for a period of at least six months, under certain conditions this prohibition can be lifted with neither undue inconvenience or cost. As far as full new-policy coverage, a consortium of insurance companies doing business in Minnesota has formed the Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association to provide coverage to persons with disabilities, on a unisex basis, at no greater than 25% above the cost of similar policies issued to non-disabled persons.

While illustrating a solution to the insurance-cost concern, the Association’s existence serves as well as an example of the availability of solutions to most of the concerns expressed by prospective employers. As is becoming clear to employers who “take the plunge”, an absence of ones ability is frequently accompanied by enhancements to abilities directly applicable to the job at hand, such as focus, enthusiasm, determination and perseverance.

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