Bruce Morgan knew he was in for a long job search.
Morgan has a strong resume and a Masters of Business Administration, but he also has cerebral palsy, which affects his speech. After his company, Nabisco, was bought by Kraft Foods Inc., his 25-person department was laid off on the same day in 2004.
Some of his colleagues planned to take time off. Morgan, a triathlete, a piano player and a father of three, started looking even before the layoff.
Over the next 19 months, he had 125 in-person meetings and sent a monthly e-mail update to 1,600 people. Sometimes he was merely discouraged, once he was felt he was discriminated against so blatantly, he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Near the end of his search, Morgan, who lives Pompton Plains, N.J. was so disheartened, he started his own computer repair business.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, yet the employment rate for those with disabilities has been nearly flat for almost 20 years.
Only 34 percent of working-age people with disabilities had full time or part time jobs in 1986. In 2004, the figure was 35 percent, according to surveys done by the National Organization on Disability in conjunction with the Harris Survey. People without disabilities have an employment rate of 78 percent.
People with disabilities are nearly three times more likely to live in poverty than people without disabilities; 26 percent of people with disabilities had an 2004 annual household income below $15,000, versus 9 percent of those without disabilities, the survey found.
“Employers still have fears and misconceptions about people with disabilities,” said Nancy Starnes, vice president and chief of staff at the National Organization on Disability, a nonprofit focusing on the participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of community life.
Starnes, who has used a wheelchair since 1973, when a plane crash left her paraplegic, has made a career of trying to open doors to other people with disabilities. She worked from 1987 to 1997 in New Jersey at county job referral services for people with disabilities.
“I heard a lot of very, very disheartened people who were trying to look for work,” she said.
While their disabilities ranged widely, their message was the same. “They were asking, in some cases, pleading, ’Can’t you help me try to get a job? I’m having a very difficult time finding an opportunity, finding an employer who will just give me a chance,”’ she said.
Advocates for the disabled try everything to open doors, from one-day events where college students with disabilities spend a day with an office worker to poetry contests.
“My mom without her job is a like a baseball player without a bat. My mom with her job is a like a cat lover with 20 cats,” wrote Diamond Clark, age 12, whose mother works as a data entry clerk through New York City’s FedCap, a nonprofit that serves 3,000 people with disabilities a year with job training and placement.
People who train disabled workers not only have to find willing employers, they have to prepare their clients for a tough search. Students who have spent their school years in special needs classes also have to adjust, quickly, to the less sheltered world of work.
Chef instructor Matthew Sywhaho teaches culinary students at FedCap’s Career Design School. The students — who are from New York’s District 75, which serves the city’s most severely disabled students — staged mock interviews with graduates of the program. Each practiced everything from the knock on the door before the interview to the handshake at the end.
“Every time you go out, there’s 400 people going out for the same job,” Sywhaho told the students, who have severe learning disabilities. “What are you going to do to differentiate yourself from the other 399?”
“My No. 1 goal,” he said later, “is to keep them from being scared, to keep them from being scared of new opportunities.”
He gave them daily verbal tests and took them shopping for unfamiliar foods, such as white eggplant. For their graduation, the students prepared and served a seven-course lunch on February 3, which began with a shiitake mushroom and heirloom tomato tart and ended with passionfruit cheesecake on a brownie with passionfruit sauce. Each new course was greeted with applause.
Between courses, Joann Kelly, whose son Terrell, 19, was in the class, said, “The job market is rough, but seeing what can be done, how far he has come, I believe he can prosper.”
The students are still sheltered, said Robyn L. Saunders, a career placement specialist at FedCap. One received a job immediately after an interview, spent a day working in the kitchen and never returned. She now tries to place two graduates in the same kitchen so they aren’t entirely surrounded by the unfamiliar. So far, her success rate is good; less than two months after graduation, six of the nine graduates have jobs.
Morgan, 44, eventually landed a job, too, after meeting a Deloitte & Touche partner at an awards lunch sponsored by Just One Break, a nonprofit that helps find jobs for people with disabilities. Morgan is now a tax manager at Deloitte & Touche in Parsippany, N.J.
At Deloitte, “no one has said anything about my handicap one way or another,” Morgan said. “Deloitte is really a remarkable, remarkable company.”
Thinking back to his job search, he said, “I think sometimes people feel — not at Deloitte, but at other jobs — ’If someone handicapped can do the work that I do, what does that say about me?”’