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Disabilities act anniversary, but still a long way to go

Monday is the anniversary of the signing of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, but we have made little progress when it comes to democratizing the workplace.
Image: Dept. of Justice marks 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act
Monday is the anniversary of the signing of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, but we have made little progress when it comes to democratizing the workplace.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

James Hill was fired from his job several years ago because of visible disfigurements from a fire that left him burnt over 85 percent of his body.

He was a maintenance worker for a Maryland storage company for about three months when a district supervisor for the company visited the location where he worked. Hill introduced himself and stretched out his hand, but the supervisor looked at his scarred hand and said, “I’m okay.”

The supervisor later sent a note to upper management noting that Hill was “handicapped, deformed or something and it’s clear he can’t get the job done.”

Soon after, Hill lost his job.

Jennifer B., 36, has a similar story to tell. She has rheumatoid arthritis and recently had a flare up during a job interview.

“I try to hide my red, swollen hands, but just today a hiring manager commented on them during an interview,” said Jennifer from the Chicago area, who did not want her full name used for fear her disability may impact her job search.

“I really try to keep the disease under wraps,” she explained. “I know hiring managers aren't supposed to discriminate, but they often subconsciously do. It's human nature.”

Monday is the anniversary of the signing of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits any discrimination against people with disabilities, including workplace bias. But in the past 20 years since its enactment disabled workers have made little progress when it comes to getting a level playing field in the workplace.

“It’s tough to celebrate against the backdrop of a really scary environment,” said Andrew Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, or AAPD, about the continued high unemployment among the disabled and the recent tough economic times, which have only made matters worse.

A study of nearly 1,800 working-age disabled people nationwide released late last week by the Kessler Foundation and that National Organization on Disabilities found that only 21 percent were employed either full or part time, compared to 59 percent of people without disabilities.

Seventy-three percent cited their disability as the reason they were unemployed, while of those 56 percent said they could not find a job in their line of work, and 37 percent said they were unable to get accommodations needed on the job so they could work with their disability.

Indeed, many employers are disregarding the law.

“There’s still a considerable way to go,” said Jacqueline Berrien, Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has seen its workload of disability discrimination cases swell in the past two decades.

The number of discrimination charges filed in 2009 hit a record 21,451, up from 17,000 a decade ago, according to EEOC data. And from 1993 through last year, charges spiked from 17.4 percent of all charges filed with the agency to 23 percent.

“There have been great improvements because of the ADA, but discrimination in the workplace is still at an unacceptable level,” said Rodger DeRose, CEO of the Kessler Foundation.

His organization’s survey also found that people with disabilities are twice as likely as people without disabilities to have annual household incomes of $15,000 or less.

Without job opportunities, DeRose said, all the accessibility advances for disabled folks -- such as ramps and parking spots -- that resulted thanks to the Act, won’t truly help the disabled integrate fully into society, both socially and economically.

“Employment is the great equalizer,” he stressed.

The unemployment rate nationally was 14.5 percent in 2009 for disabled workers, compared with 9 percent for non-disabled employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the participation rate — meaning those who were looking for work — among workers with disabilities was only 22 percent, compared to 71 percent for those without physical or mental problems.

The AAPD’s Imparato believes the participation rate is so low because disabled job seekers get discouraged when they can’t find work and eventually stop looking because the hurdles may seem insurmountable.

He said the system is set up to discourage some disabled people from considering employment. Many disabled people require government assistance such as Medicaid and Social Security Disability benefits, but bringing in an income can often jeopardize these types of assistance.

“We need flexibility in benefits and flexibility in the workplace,” he maintained.

Some employers are trying to provide that flexibility.

Brendan Kelly, 23, has autism and recently started a job at a CVS pharmacy through a program with the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) in Phoenix.

CVS and SARRC have been partnering in a pilot job-placement project for the last two years and so far 10 workers have been able to land jobs at the company as a result.

Through the program, Kelly was able to hook up with a job coach who has helped him figure out the basics of job search and jobs skills.

The job at CVS is working out well so far. “I enjoy getting to be around people and I’m really happy I’ve got a job,” Kelly said.

But getting to this point has been a tough road, according to his mother Mary Kelly. She believes his disability has already derailed two of her son’s dream jobs, including the culinary arts and working with animals. The job environments, she said, just could not accommodate her son’s disability.

He also tried to get a job doing carry-out for a local grocery store. “He kept trying to get an interview, and we went there every week for a while, but he just didn’t have the right skill set to say, ‘What’s happening? Are you considering my application?’” she explained.

“He didn’t have the savior-faire to do that,” she continued. “As a result, he ended up pissing off the people who were hiring. They said he was very rude. But he wasn’t. He just didn’t know the proper way to act. That was a very discouraging situation.”

She said he would have been an “outstanding candidate, but because his behavior wasn’t neuro-typical, they washed their hands of him.”

Many disability advocates believe government enforcement of the ADA needs to be beefed up if people like Kelly are to succeed.

But the EEOC, the agency charged with making sure the act and a host of other discrimination laws are abided by, saw its staff and budget cut during the Bush administration, said Paul Steven Miller, a law professor at the University of Washington School of Law and a former EEOC commissioner.

While Obama has asked for more funding, he continued, now the task of the commission is to rebuild its staff and “rebuild trust in the organization among the American people.”

One of the big criticisms of the ADA had been that many groups of individuals weren’t even considered disabled when their discrimination cases ended up in court because the ADA was not broad enough.

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 was supposed to change that by expanding the disabilities that are covered, but after a long EEOC rule-making process, the agency still has not introduced the regulations that will govern the amendments.

The EEOC’s Berrien would not comment on when the new regulations for the amendments would be ready other than to say “soon.”

Meanwhile, she added, “enforcement of the law” and “making sure people understand the law” will be her priorities.

Hill, who was fired for his disability, filed a complaint with the EEOC when he was fired in 2007, and last year he prevailed in court.

In May 2009, his former employer Extra Space Management settled the discrimination lawsuit brought by the EEOC on behalf of Hill for $95,000 and the consent decree also required that the company provide ADA training at all its locations.

“It’s a long process. I understand why a lot of people don’t go through with it,” said Hill, who ended up disfigured because he ran into a burning neighbor’s home to save the children there. He said he was able to endure the firing and the long litigation process thanks to “my wife, my daughters, my religion, my God.”

But, he admitted, “My wife doesn’t know this, but I cried at night.”